REVIEW: “Music Among Friends” at Ascension

I’m only speculating, but I can imagine that the interior of Church of the Ascension with its gorgeous brick, wood, and tile surfaces could be the large-space equivalent of singing in one’s shower.  Musical performances come out bright, lively, and remarkably crisp, despite the reverberative nature of such a space—one that accentuates rather than detracts—no doubt a delightful ego boost for any musician that performs there.  Yet plunk down a foursome of really excellent players into that rich acoustic setting, add an interesting and  unfamiliar work or two, and you have an even more intriguing afternoon of chamber music.

Music Among Friends opened the 2009-2010 season of Friends of Music and the Arts with an eclectic and distinct mix of five works performed by four Knoxville musicians:  Miroslav Hristov, violin; Wesley Baldwin, cello; Cindy Hicks, harp; and Gary Sperl, clarinet.  Each of the works included different combinations of the four players in works ranging from early Joseph Haydn to 20th century Olivier Messiaen. And that made for an intriguing 75 minutes of music.

Mr. Sperl and Ms. Hicks opened the program with Charles Bochsa’s Grand Sonata for Clarinet and Harp.  The music of Bochsa, a 19th Century harpist and composer—rarely heard, if at all, today—gave absolutely no hint to the scandal-ridden life he lead.  Quite to the contrary, it was filled with pleasant melodic phrases that danced their way on a lively journey through a pastoral setting.

Going in, I was certain that I had heard the next work on the program some years ago, the Haydn Trio III for Clarinet, Violin, and Cello, but I remembered a more mature Haydn work I’m sure.  This earlier Haydn was a bit staid by Haydn standards of delightful surprises, but perfectly and solidly managed by Sperl, Hristov, and Baldwin.

Camille Saint-Saëns, although a great pianist in his own right, had begun to move away from what he felt was the heaviness and inherent volume of the piano in his later years and toward the lightness and transparency that the harp provided.  A great example was the Fantasy for Violin and Harp in which Hristov and Hicks carefully balanced assertiveness and lyricism, juxtaposing subtle singing phrases here and there in both instruments, while retaining the elegance and precision of Saint-Saëns’ earlier years.

While Jacques Ibert is not known for heaviness, either, he, unlike Saint-Saëns, was firmly entrenched in the 20th Century.  Similar to the Les Six composers, his works are still light, yet disavow the touches of classic impressionism.  His Trio for Violin, Cello, and Harp, seemed to bring it all together as a perfect finale piece.  The second Andante movement opens with a duet between Baldwin’s cello and Hicks’ harp that was truly exquisite.

The Friends of Music and the Arts series continues monthly at Church of the Ascension.

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