Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 4, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Opening their summer Interlude series, back in their longtime venue, the Richmond Chamber Players dusted off a rarely heard piano-quintet version of Darius Milhaud’s “Le création du monde” (“The Creation of the World”), jazzy/bluesy ballet music originally scored for a theater orchestra.

Milhaud produced this chamber suite at the request of his publisher, Stephen Schmidt, the Chamber Players’ artistic director, said in introductory remarks. In the 19th century, reductions of this kind usually were intended to make it possible to play orchestral works in the home, typically by amateurs. By the time “La création du monde”  premiered, in 1923, chamber versions of orchestral pieces, such as Stravinsky’s piano reductions of his ballet scores and the reductions of late-romantic and early modern symphonic works created for Vienna’s Society for Private Musical Performance, were more often meant to be played by professional-grade musicians.

Milhaud’s reduction belongs to the latter category, especially in its demands on the pianist, whose part carries much of the rhythmic and coloristic weight of the orchestral score. The string parts, aside from key solo passages for viola and cello in the final section, are mostly supportive and atmospheric.

John Walter, this ensemble’s pianist, was certainly up to the score’s technical demands, although perhaps not fully attuned to some of its stylistic echoes. (Blues and jazz don’t figure much in his extensive performance résumé.) Walter effectively drove the energy of the piece, ably negotiating its sometimes intricate rhythms and timing its rhythmically strategic silences.

The accompanying string quartet – violinists Stacy Matthews and Susy Yim, violist Schmidt and cellist Neal Cary – sounded rather strained and wiry, perhaps because the players were trying to project alongside the big piano part. Schmidt and Cary projected their cameos to fine effect.

Yim, Schmidt and Neal Cary, joined by violinist Catherine Cary, were in much better form in the program’s opening work, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101. This work, written during a summer vacation in 1956, is one of the composer’s sunniest compositions, at times seeming to evoke spa-town salon and dance music. There are dark undertones – the Soviet Union hadn’t been fully de-Stalinized (it never would be) and Shostakovich hadn’t undergone a personality transplant – but the ominous shadows are far more subtle here than in most of this composer’s music.

Shostakovich scored this quartet in Mittel-Europa tradition, with the first violin as a generally predominant voice. Yim reveled in this leading role, emphasizing its lyrical qualities. The ensemble was at its best in the third movement, a slow canon given added weight by Neal Cary’s deeply resonant cello.

The cellist and pianist Walter rounded out the program with two works by Robert Schumann, the Adagio and Allegro in A flat major, Op. 70, originally for horn and piano, and “Three Fantasy Pieces,” Op. 73, originally for clarinet and piano. Both are commonly played by cellists or violists.

Cary and Walter effectively conveyed Schumann’s dark-hued lyricism, especially in the “Fantasy Pieces.”

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with works for strings by Florence Price, Sergei Prokofiev and William Bolcom at 3 p.m. Aug. 11 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $25. Details: http://www.richmondchamberplayers.org

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