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El Paso Chamber Music Festival Visits Las Cruces

About 120 people in Las Cruces got an outstanding musical treat last night at the NMSU Music Center Recital Hall. The El Paso Pro-Musica produced a world-class performance of chamber music as part of their month-long 2007 El Paso Chamber Music Festival. Las Cruces is blessed with the Las Cruces Symphony Orchestra for regular performances of orchestral classical music, but we don’t get very many small ensemble chamber music concerts. This concert featured performers from all over the world who play with major orchestras, teach and have recorded.

The concert was preceded by an animated talk and discussion session by Zuill Bailey, the youthful Music Director of the Pro-Musica. He talked about the Festival and about the pieces of music on the program and then took questions from the audience. His enthusiasm and excitement about music was palpable in his speech, hand gestures and body language. He finds the personalities of the composers and what was happening in their lives a fascinating part of the music, beyond the technical aspects of the music. The whole point of his talk was engage the audience personally to make the music more understandable and enjoyable for the audience.

He also talked a bit about the Recital Hall and how they had placed the musicians back from the edge of the stage to improve the sound, based on the sound checks. Chamber music is meant to be intimate and the performers and audience close together but they went for sound over being close, an appropriate choice. Mr. Bailey had heard concerts in the Recital Hall but had never played in it, so he was curious about how it would sound. (I spoke to him afterward and he said it was really very nice). He also suggested that sitting farther back might sound better as the angle of the f-holes (on the front of the instruments) tended to project out into the hall. I moved farther back after the intermission and the sound was indeed much fuller, much to my surprise as I had expected the inverse-square law to dominate.

The first piece was Beethoven’s String Trio in G Major. Mr. Bailey explained that Beethoven scored this piece so that each of the instruments could be clearly heard. Indeed this was the case – it was easy to hear the melodies played by the violin, the cello and the viola. It is a lovely piece of music and Messrs. Kim, Lee and Zuill played it wonderfully. They also clearly were enjoying themselves, as did all the musicians who played in this concert. So did the audience, whose applause was strongly appreciative.

The other two pieces in the program are tied together in a couple of ways. Brahms was obsessed with Clara, Schumann’s wife and a famous and accomplished pianist. There is no indication that anything happened between them, except that Clara and Brahms spent a lot of time together. Clara remained devoted to Schumann even during extended concert tours. Mr. Bailey suggested that careful listening to both pieces would reveal musical passages that seemed to speak Clara’s name. He also explained that both Brahms and Schumann combined the voices of the different instruments much more in their pieces of the program than Beethoven had.

Messrs. Kim, Smith and Knauer brought intensity and depth to the Brahms Trio in C Major. By turns poignant, reflective and joyous, this piece was great fun to listen to. As Mr. Bailey had suggested, the refrain of Clara’s name was easily noticeable. Emotion was present in this piece throughout, and visible in the concentration of the musicians but this was just a taste of the excitement to follow later. Applause at the end of this piece was strong and enthusiastic, just as the performance had been.

The Schumann Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major is a remarkable piece of music. As Mr. Bailey explained, Schumann composed this over a five week period while Clara was on a concert tour. He was by turns depressed, missing her and feeling inadequate and lonely. He couldn’t sleep so he stayed up composing and pouring all his emotion and troubles into the music. Messrs. Morgenstern, Lee, Smith and Knauer threw themselves bodily into this piece to give it the power it needed. They reached sublime heights of joy (in sections where, presumably, Schumann was reflecting on his beloved Clara, whose name could again be heard in the music) and depths of despair as he was racked with sadness and loneliness. This piece really wore its emotion on its sleeve and was very exciting to listen to. I’m sure those unaccustomed to chamber music were quite surprise at the power only 4 instruments could produce. This exemplary performance was received appropriately with a standing ovation.

The only disappointment of the evening was a relatively low turnout for such a fabulous concert. The good news is that most of the Festival is yet to come, although you’ll have to travel to El Paso to hear the fine concerts in the rest of the series.

January 8, 2007
Monday

Presented by:
New Mexico State University
Music Center Recital Hall
1075 North Horseshoe, Las Cruces
7:30 pm

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Trio in G Major Op. 9, No. 1 (1798)
        Adagio – Allegro con brio
Adagio, ma non tanto e cantabile
        Scherzo: Allegro – Trio I – II – Scherzo
        Presto
                        Benny Kim, violin
                        Scott Lee, viola
                        Zuill Bailey, cello

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Trio in C Major, Op. 87 (1882)
        Allegro
        Andante con moto
        Scherzo: Presto
        Finale: Allegro giocoso
                        
                        Benny Kim, violin
                        Brinton Smith, cello
                        Sebastian Knauer, piano

Intermission

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 47 (1842)
        Sostenuto assai – Allegro ma non troppo
        Scherzo. Molto vivace – Trio I and Trio II
        Andante cantabile
        Finale: Vivace

                        Gil Morgenstern, violin
                        Scott Lee, viola
                        Brinton Smith, cello
                        Sebastian Knauer, piano

        El Paso Chamber Music Festival Sponsored by:
                                Diamond Level
Mrs. Robert M. Graham, Sr., Marlene & J.O. Stewart, Jr., Western Refining
                                Platinum Level
                 El Paso Pro-Musica Guild, Wells Fargo

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