Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 11, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

“And now, for something completely different.” The old Monty Python catchphrase came to life as members of the Richmond Chamber Players turned from Florence Price’s reworkings of American folk tunes to Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80, and then to the ragtime revival of William Bolcom.

The highlight of the concert was the Prokofiev, played by violinist Susy Yim and pianist Daniel Stipe. The sonata, written for the great Russian violinist David Oistrakh (teacher of Yim’s teacher) and introduced in 1946, is one of Prokofiev’s darkest and most starkly expressive works, and one of the most vivid sound artifacts of the psychic trauma inflicted on Russians during the murderous dictatorship of Joseph Stalin and the ravages of the Second World War.

Yim’s devotion to the sonata was audible in a concentrated and highly charged performance that conveyed both the chill of a recurring theme, which Prokofiev likened to “wind passing through a graveyard,” and the lyricism of several sections that recall romantic episodes of the composer’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet music. The violinist gave full vent to the violence of the sonata’s second movement, marked allegro brusco, which sounds as if the Montagues and Capulets of “Romeo and Juliet” battle anew with high explosives.

Like Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and stringed instruments, Prokofiev’s Op. 80 is apportioned equally for the two instruments. Stipe, playing his third concert in five days, was very much Yim’s match in sound projection and expressive potency.

A string quartet composed Yim, violinist Catherine Cary, violist Stephen Schmidt and cellist Neal Cary opened the program with “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint” by Florence Price, an African-American female composer active in the middle third of the 20th century, whose music was celebrated in her prime years, neglected for decades after her death in 1953, and recently has been enjoying a revival.

Price’s elaborations on familiar tunes – “Calvary,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” “Shortnin’ Bread” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – are late-romantic in style and at times veer close to didactic exercises in theme and variation; but she chose good material, treated it affectionately, and gave the four instruments many opportunities for intricate interplay. This performance brought out the most attractive qualities of the settings.

Bolcom, a veteran American composer, was one of the prime movers in the ragtime revival of the 1960s and ’70s, both as a performer of classics by Scott Joplin and other masters of the piano rag around the turn of the 20th century, and as a composer of new rags echoing the old style. Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost” (1970), probably the most widely performed latter-day piano rag, is recast as the central piece in his “Three Rags for String Quartet (Ghost Rags),” dating from 1989.

The set, nicely balancing whimsical expressiveness and played-for-chuckles spooky touches, was given a brightly animated reading by this string ensemble.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with music of Brahms, Allan Blank and Chen Yi at 3 p.m. Aug. 18 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $25 Details: http://www.richmondchamberplayers.org

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