Review: Summer Chamberfest I

Adrian Pintea & Jeannette Jang, violins
Hyo Joo Uh, viola
Jason McComb, cello
Peter Spaar, double-bass
Ingrid Keller, piano
July 7, Dominion Energy Center

Louise Farrenc is one of the standout figures in the ongoing discovery of female composers of the past. Farrenc (1804-75), a French contemporary of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn and Robert and Clara Schumann, was a prominent pianist, a composer of instrumental works in an era when opera and ballet music dominated the French soundscape, and the only woman to be appointed to the faculty of the Paris Conservatoire in the 19th century.

In the opening concert of the Richmond Symphony’s Summer Chamberfest, an ensemble of piano and strings played the earliest of the chamber works for which Farrenc was most widely celebrated, her Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 30. Dating from 1839, the piece is scored for piano, violin, viola, cello and double-bass (the same instrumentation as that of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet), and echoes many of the prevailing strains of European music of the time – especially the virtuosic, embellishment-rich piano writing of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (one of Farrenc’s teachers).

Pianist Ingrid Keller, appropriately, was the lead voice in this performance, but was a considerate leader, balancing her instrument’s often elaborate figurations with the rich, moody string parts in the big, rhapsodic opening and closing movements of the quintet. The five players realized echoes of Felix Mendelssohn’s quicksilver “fairy” music in the quintet’s scherzo, and of Beethoven in the anthem-like theme of the adagio.

Other echoes pervaded “Neo Soul,” the first string quartet of Damien Geter, a Chesterfield County-born singer (the bass-baritone soloist in the Richmond Symphony’s May performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) and composer whose works blend European classical and African-American vernacular and popular musical traditions.

The three-movement “Neo Soul” is based thematically in Black popular song; expressively, though, the piece sounds like an American version of the folk-rooted but intensely personal writings of European “nationalist” romantics. I was reminded more than once of Bedrich Smetana’s First String Quartet (“In My Life”).

Violinists Adrian Pintea and Jeannette Jang, violist Hyo Joo Uh and cellist Jason McComb ably negotiated Geter’s contrasting grooves of romanticized, often eloquent melody over ostinato or cross-rhythmic bass lines, in an enticing introduction to Geter’s music.

There’s more to come: In 2025, Virginia Opera will introduce Geter’s and librettist Jessica Murphy Moo’s “Loving v. Virginia,” based on the lives of the couple whose 1967 Supreme Court case overturned prohibitions against interracial marriage, and Geter will serve as composer-in-residence with the Richmond Symphony (a co-commissioner of the opera).

Pintea, Jang, Uh and McComb rounded out this Chamberfest opener with the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Quartet in F major, one of the best-known examples of pizzicato (plucked-string) writing in the quartet literature. While suitably animated in the pizzicato sections and moody in the central tune, the foursome’s collective sound was too heavy to qualify as idiomatically French-impressionist.

The Richmond Symphony’s Summer Chamberfest continues with violinist Alison Hall, flutist Shannon Vandzura, trumpeter Brian Strawley, trombonist Evan Williams and pianist Russell Wilson playing works by J.S. Bach, Missy Mazzoli and Eric Ewazen at 6:30 p.m. July 14 in Rhythm Hall of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $25-$30. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);