Review: CofC's Chas. Music Fest

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The College of Charleston presented a series of concerts last week for its annual Music Festival. Lindsay Koob had been looking forward to it all year, but was able to make only one of three concerts on Friday night. He sent us this review. — J.S.

One of Chucktown’s chief musical blessings these days is the Charleston Music Fest: an annual chamber music series brought to us by the College of Charleston’s ever-growing School of the Arts.

It’s the pet project of two of CofC’s most illustrious teachers, violinist Lee-Chin Siow and cellist Natalia Khoma — with inspired help from their visiting colleagues, all of whom are members of the global A-list.

We had to wait this year ’til after the holidays for the series to kick in — but it was worth the wait. The week past gave witness to Extravaganza, a cluster of three appealing concerts. Alas, professional conflicts restricted me to Friday’s very generous program at the Simons Center’s Recital Hall.

Khoma and fellow cellist Robert deMaine (who also appeared with the Charleston Symphony Saturday evening) got things going with a delightful Baroque confection — the Duet for Two Cellos in G by French master Francois Couperin. Our dynamic duo served up its five movements with verve and glittering precision, negotiating the music’s often quirky rhythms and profuse ornaments with authentic period style.

Then we got some very fancy fiddling, as Lee-Chin and Katharine Gowers tackled Sergei Prokofiev’s thorny Sonata for Two Violins. While I’m not sure that every note was in perfect synch when the going got frantic, I’ve never heard this beastly difficult piece played better live. Both artists studied with the same teacher, Almita Vamos — and it showed in their sense of interpretive unity. Between moments of eerie beauty, they squeezed every last drop of Prokofiev’s hallmark Russian angst and sardonic bite out of the score.

Enter pianist Peter Takacs, along with Mr. deMaine, for a soulful go at Claude Debussy’s only cello sonata. The joys of the moment included exquisite keyboard textures and pearls of gleaming tone from the cello. Debussy, resurrected in music, took us from moody musings to dreamy ecstasy, with some jumpy humor along the way. I still can’t get the final movement’s searing, upward-arching four-note phrase out of my head.

Once all of the above artists (minus Khoma) gathered onstage after halftime, violist Toby Appel spoke to the crowd about their final piece: Robert Schumann’s popular Piano Quintet in E-flat, describing it as a “power struggle” between a piano and a string quartet. The music — an exuberant to the last note — bore him out, and our fabulous musicians had a ball with the manic-depressive mood swings that are a Schumann specialty.

Folks, chamber music simply doesn’t come much better than this — not even during Spoleto. And that’s saying something.

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