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CHAMBER REVIEW
California Summer Music / Sunday, July 5, 2009
Faculty Concert

Violist Sheila Browne

SSU WORKSHOP FACULTY SHINES IN UNFAMILIAR WORKS

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, July 5, 2009

California Summer Music is a musician’s workshop, rotating between college campuses that put young players in small classes with masters of their respective instruments. Sonoma State University is hosting the 2009 event for three weeks in July, and the CSM faculty had a chance July 5 to show the troops how strings and a piano can sing, albeit with non-traditional compositions.

Before 125 avid listeners in the Fred Warren Auditorium, string and piano performers played a concert consisting of mostly unfamiliar music, and discovery was afoot. Beginning with the Theme and Variations movement from Mozart’s E Flat Divertimento (K. 563), violinist Wendy Sharp and violist Scott Woolweaver were joined by cellist Richard Andaya in launching an inventive set of four variations that never strayed far from the richly-hued theme. Written in 1788, the work is Mozart’s only published string trio. Ms. Sharp’s violin had considerable power, juxtaposing the stately and processional cello line.

Lili Boulanger’s “Nocturne and Cortege” followed, a short seven-page work written in 1914 and, given the title, played in a surprisingly festive mood. Violinist Robin Sharp and pianist Lori Lack gave the piece, perhaps the most performed of the Boulanger works, a lilting reading, the violin pitch dead on and the piano line continually supportive.

The first half closed with two intriguing pieces, both wonderfully played. University of Tennessee composer Kenneth Jacobs wrote his Concerto for Viola, “Approaching Northern Darkness,” for Sheila Browne, and here she played just the final movement from the long 47-minute work premiered in 2005. But it was a substantial chunk, titled “Bold Declaration,” and exhibited a pulsating power and rhythmic drive throughout. This is a big movement, and Browne mastered the multiple double stops and eerie top register of her instrument with aplomb, as did pianist Julie Nishimura. The long romantic line was sustained, the lower-register viola segments contrasting with the piano’s syncopated rhythms. Browne has just recorded the entire concerto on a Zyode CD.

Following the Jacobs was daunting, and some frolic was in order, provided exuberantly by violinist Wendy Sharp and pianist Nishimura in Paul Schoenfeld’s “Four Souvenirs.” Schoenfeld’s 12-minute work cobbles together music depicting a samba, tango, Tin Pan Alley tunes and a rollicking square dance. His sensuous tango was especially effective, the tune from “Autumn Leaves” poking out and leading to the jazziest of the set, the fast square dance. Little bursts of sforzandos, played stylishly by Nishimura, were a relief of sorts from the 1920s swing melody of the Tin Pan Alley movement. The music is intricate and was deftly played, the audience seeming charmed.

Following intermission, cellist Irene Sharp, accompanied by Nishmura, played Poulenc’s 1948 Cello Sonata. The opening Allegro tempo di Marcia got off to a rocky start as Sharp had severe pitch problems, particularly in fast passages where she couldn’t find a tonal center, and her portamento was unconvincing and muddy. Things settled down in the calm and lyric Cavatine, played with just the right amount of muted sadness. The pianissimo ending was lovely. A Parisian dance hall mood characterized the Ballabile third movement, the playing finally secure, and leading to the concluding Largo-Presto finale that began with crashing forte chords from the pianist. It’s a sectional movement, pesky to keep together, with some phrases from Sharp sounding at first too tentative and then in sets of repeated chords refined and distinctive. She is an experienced cellist but eschews a virtuoso’s approach.

Virtuoso music closed the program as Santa Clara University pianist Hans Boepple played just the final section, the “Tanatella”, from the Venezia e Napoli supplement to Vol. II of Liszt’s Anées de Pèlerinage. Famous for the technical demands of fast repeated notes and demonic chord passages, the piece frequently appears as an encore at piano recitals but was an odd choice here, given the nature and freshness of the preceding music. Boepple showed good technical command and added many intriguing ritards, allowing discrete voice leadings. Apart from a brief memory lapse and a lack of the last ounce of orchestral brilliance, his playing was effective and drew the evening’s most prolonged applause.

No encores were offered by any of the musicians, appropriate for an event which showcased faculty at the beginning of a rigorous schedule of workshops for youthful musicians.