World premiere at Chamber VIII and other delights



While it’s by no means unprecedented to hear world premiere performances at the chamber series, it’s not a particularly common event, either — particularly when the composer comes from a place like Iran. But it happened at Tuesday’s Chamber VIII event. However, let me take the program’s events in proper order.

The opening selection was a fairly short early piece by French romantic tunesmith Camille Saint-Saens: his Tarantella for Flute, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 6. You may recall that the Tarantella is a particularly fast and manic form of Italian dance, named after the old wives’ tale that victims of the tarantula spider’s bite have to dance long and hard in order to stay alive. This example started out at a lively, but hardly frantic pace, but it soon grew in speed, volume, and intensity. It was very Italianate in sound and style, with melodies in what sounded to me like the Neapolitan style. Flute sensation Tara Helen O’Connor and clarinet-meister Todd Palmer joined forces with pianist Pedja Muzijevic for this one. And, as Pedja laid down a perky piano foundation, our woodwind wizards went to town, their instruments intertwining, snakelike, in precise and perfect accord. It seemed almost miraculous that they were able to stay together in their final mad dash to the end — amazing!

Next we got to revel in some brainy barnstorming from the great J.S. Bach, in the form of his Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor. Since Bach was in the habit of recycling his previously composed concertos (many of which were lost) for different instruments to expand a given work’s performance prospects. Accordingly, this one also exists as a concerto for two harpsichords (often played now on two pianos). Host Geoff Nuttal told us that playing Bach like this was a particular joy for him, since Bach wrote nothing for the string quartet — and that touring and playing most of the year with his St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) means he has to wait for Spoleto to get to perform his music.

Our soloists for this one were series regular Daniel Phillips on violin (he didn’t get to Charleston ‘til yesterday) and oboe player supreme James Austin Smith, whose artistry we’ve been enjoying since this year’s festival edition began. Backing them up were Mr. Manzo’s double bass, Mr. Muzijevic’s harpsichord, and the entire SLSQ. And it was a great team: it was wonderful to hear Phillips’ inspired fiddling again, and Smith’s liquid, expressive oboe was delightful, as usual. The backup bunch supported them beautifully, with tutti passages that were both precise and passionate. The central slow movement’s gentle dance was especially ravishing.

Then came the world premiere alluded to above, in the form of a very appealing and accessible Rhapsody for Clarinet and Piano, by Iranian composer Hooshyar Khayam. While he couldn’t be here with us in person for the event, digital technology enabled us to experience his virtual presence via Skype — as well as enabling him to witness the performance — from an internet café in Armenia. Via hookup to the theater’s P.A. system, he told us simply that he’s dedicating the piece to the children growing up on the streets of Iran’s capitol city of Tehran, where he himself had spent his own earliest years. He added that, since one of the purposes of music is to bring people together, it was his sincere hope that his music could help in some small way to bring the people of our two nations closer. We should all say Amen!

Clarinet guru Todd Palmer and pianist extraordinaire Stephen Prutsman (at whose suggestion this work was commissioned) got together onstage to deliver the piece, and they did it beautifully. The work had a distinct middle-eastern flavor to it, with the music rising from what sounded like a low lament to a shrieking paean of triumph. Palmer’s mostly long-breathed notes were often peppered with decorative accents in the Arabic style, and Prutsman’s quirky, yet highly evocative piano part included several interludes in which he stood up, one hand still playing the regular keys, while reaching into the piano’s interior with his other hand to pluck or strum the instrument’s strings. The net effect was magical. I hope to hear more from this composer in the future.    

The grand finale was Austrian composer Erich Korngold’s incredibly rich and romantic Piano Quintet in E Major, a work that he wrote in his early twenties. Of Viennese Jewish stock, little Erich was one of music history’s most incredible prodigies, both as a pianist and composer. The works (including operas) that he wrote as a teenager were the rage all across Europe, and mega-composers like Mahler, Puccini, and Richard Strauss were among his most ardent fans. But, as pre-WWII Nazi storm clouds got to brewing in the 1930s, Korngold and his family escaped to America, where he became one of Hollywood’s greatest-ever film composers (he won an Academy Award for his Errol Flynn classic, Robin Hood).

And the music was hard (at least to play) — especially the piano part, which Stephen Prutsman tossed off like child’s play; the remaining parts were artfully dispatched by our trusty SLSQ. From the over-the-top, nearly overwrought dramatics of the opening movement through the middle movement’s tender romance to the driven intensity and playful touches of the finale, this was truly memorable music. I can’t understand why it doesn’t get played more often. And it sent us on our various ways with big smiles on our faces.   

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