Ruth Sommers’ Festival Chamber Music, a Concert Series at Weill Hall (Carnegie Hall) — an Introduction

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Ruth Sommers, Founder and Director of Festival Chamber Music.

Ruth Sommers, Founder and Director of Festival Chamber Music.

Programs: 2017 – 2018 Season

All Concerts are held at Weill Hall (in Carnegie Hall), 154 West 57th Street

Sunday, October 22, 2017 at 2pm
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1856-1791) Piano Quartet # 1 in G Minor, K. 478
Mohammed Fairouz (1985- ) – Evermore for String Quartet and Voice, New York Premiere
Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) – Piano Quintet # 1 in C Minor Op. 1
Mohammed Fairouz, Voice
Philip Edward Fisher, Piano
Eriko Sato, Violin
Ah Ling Neu, Viola
Ruth Sommers, Cello

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 at 8pm
Anton Eberl (1765-1807) – Grand Trio in E-flat major, Op. 36 for Clarinet, Cello and Piano
Tomás Bretón (1850-1923) – Quatre Morceaux Espagnols for Piano Trio
Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) – Piano Trio in E Minor “Dumky”
Tanya Bannister, Piano
Anna Elashvili, Violin
Ruth Sommers, Cello
Charles Neidich, Clarinet

Thursday, February 8, 2018 at 8pm
François de Fossa (1775-1849) – Trio No. 2 in G Major for Guitar, Violin and Cello, Op.18
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) – Temporal Variations for Oboe and Piano
Woldemar Bargiel (1828-1897) – Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat Major, Op. 20 #2
Yuri Funahashi, Piano
Calvin Wiersma, Violin
Ruth Sommers, Cello
Oren Fader, Guitar
James Austin Smith, Oboe

Thursday, March 22, 2018 at 8pm
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) – Trio in E-flat Major, K. 498, for Clarinet, Viola and Piano “Kegelstatt”
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) – Meditation Hebraique for Cello and Piano
Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982) – Intermezzo and Sephardic Dance from Israeli Suite for Cello and Piano
Walter Rabl (1873-1940) – Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano
David Oei, Piano
Katie Lansdale, Violin
Ruth Sommers, Cello
Charles Neidich, Clarinet

Friday, May 4, 2018 at 8pm
Anton Reicha (1770-1836) -Variations for Bassoon and String Quartet
Hans Krása (1899-1944) – Theme and Variations for String Quartet
George Chadwick (1854-1931) – Piano Quintet in E Flat Major
Katie Lansdale, Violin/Viola
Calvin Wiersma, Violin/Viola
Eriko Sato, Violin/Viola
Ruth Sommers, Cello
Frank Morelli, Bassoon
Tanya Bannister, Piano

Just about a year ago I had the pleasure of discovering a New York chamber music series I hadn’t heard about, Festival Chamber Music, when I came to hear Mohammed Fairouz’s No Orpheus (2009) for Mezzo Soprano and Cello, settings of poems by our Senior Editor of Art and Music, Lloyd Schwartz, who had made the trip down from Boston to read his texts before they were sung. He has heard several performances of this work since its premiere, and he was well pleased with the work of Christine Antenbring, mezzo-soprano and cellist Ruth Sommers, noting the strong differences in the performances of the work he had heard. One might be tempted to consider the use of a solo cello to do the job of a piano a gimmick, but in fact it convinced me from the very beginning—thanks to a great extent to Ruth Sommers’ eloquent, colorful, responsive, but disciplined playing. The very fact that a mezzo-soprano and a cello inhabit different tonal worlds, with only a modicum of interweaving at the top of the cello’s gamut, enlivened the colors and textures, occasionally adding a touch of wildness alongside Dr. Schwartz’s civilized, humane poems. Wildness is very much present in Fairouz’s emotional landscape, but so is an intense appreciation of words in poetry. That he would be attracted to and penetrate finely-tuned poetry like Schwartz’s is immediate evidence of this, and I’ll have more to say about that in relation to another work of his below.

It was not lost on me either that the playing of the other works on the program, two early trios by Beethoven (Op. 1, no. 1 in E Flat Major for strings) and Brahms (Op. 8, for violin, cello, and piano) was also very pleasing. The music was beautifully played, and was happily lacking in stress and pretension. In the United States, especially in chamber music, one often feels that every performance of some familiar work—like Dvořák’s “Dumky” Trio or Schubert’s “Trout” quintet—has to aim at being the very best ever played, at least in intention. Behind this performative ethos there lies the competitiveness of our conservatories and the competitive spirit of summer schools like Tanglewood and Marlboro. Not that there is anything wrong with excellence or doing one’s best…but if you go to chamber concerts in a European country with a significant musical culture, you will find that such occasions are rather more relaxed. It’s more “tonight we play Brahms,” rather than reaching for the heavens. Chamber music is a part of life, one which can be more participatory than orchestral music or opera, and if a music-lover can assemble a group to play at home, the Hausmusik is a worthy complement to the ambitious professional performances we pay to hear in a hall. Ruth Sommers, the cellist I mentioned above, the Founder and Director of Festival Chamber Music, formed a vision of striking a balance between the standards that were inculcated in her during her studies at Juilliard and the more informal culture of Hausmusik, when she and the other professional musicians in her circle play together for their own enjoyment. As she says on the series’ website, “why not try to create a concert atmosphere where both the audience and the musicians feel as though they are sharing an evening of music at home together? Where everyone feels comfortable and relaxed. Where musicians take the music seriously, but don’t take themselves so seriously.” From my experience so far, Ms. Sommers success in accomplishing her goal is total. On an even more crucial level, I found that in every concert the musicians played the music, rather than, as we hear all too often from the world-famous names, carefully perfected samples of the musician’s style of playing, incidentally hanging on an armature provided by an even more renowned dead person. That grows tedious after a time.

Another important principle for Ruth Sommers is the absence of written program notes. The musicians take turns in explaining the works they are about to play in an engaging, personal, and informative way. These brief talks help immeasurably in breaching the gap between the musicians and the audience and are much livelier than most program notes. I’ve always learned something new from them.

John Marcus, Violin; Eriko Sato, Viola; Ruth Sommers, Cello; Logan Coale, Double Bass; Tanya Bannister, Piano play Schubert's "Trout" Quintet. Photo © 2017 Richard Termine.

John Marcus, Violin; Eriko Sato, Viola; Ruth Sommers, Cello; Logan Coale, Double Bass; Tanya Bannister, Piano play Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet.
Photo © 2017 Richard Termine.

A perfect case in point was Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet played on March 29, 2017 by John Marcus, violin, Eriko Sato, viola, Ruth Sommers, cello, Logan Coale, double bass, and Tanya Bannister, piano. In addition to the solid professionalism they have developed over more than a few years of teaching and concertizing, they brought the old favorite to life with their own warm pleasure in the music and the relaxed comfort of Hausmusik, as it is cultivated at Festival Chamber Music. This gave Ms. Bannister, a pianist with quite a striking temperament of her own, space to bring some unusually intense energy to her musical expression. One doesn’t often, if ever, associate the “Trout” with fire, but there were some flames enlivening the textures. This was without a doubt one of the most rewarding performances of the work I have heard.

I also especially savored John Marcus’ musicianship. He plays with a rock-solid sense of the beat, which enhances his ability to spin out a marvelous long line with subtle, flowing sub-phrases within. His creamy, but not ostentatious tone plays its role as well. Mozart’s great Trio in C Major, K. 548 was an ideal vehicle for Marcus’ artistry, and it was a rich performance all around. Volkmar Andreae’s string trio in D Minor, Op. 29, which followed, was an engaging example of  Festival Chamber Music’s mission to present forgotten or neglected composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ernö Dohnányi, hardly a forgotten composer, but not so often played, seems to be a Festival favorite, with his Serenade in C Major for String Trio appearing last spring with a bassoon quartet by Franz Krommer and Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 47, itself a rather neglected work in the composer’s oeuvre.

The estimable Hungarian returned in the opening concert of the current season under the guise of his teutonized name, Ernst von Dohnányi, in a work he wrote at the age of eighteen, his Opus 1, a Piano Quintet in C Major. Another outstanding violinist, Calvin Wiersma, introduced the work  with an enthusiasm only people of mature years  can appreciate, and he led the group in a ebullient, warm, and detailed performance.

Also billed was the New York Premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s Evermore for String Quartet and Voice. Following the success of No Orpheus the previous year, Fairouz approached Ruth Sommers about this new piece, a setting of three poems by Edgar Allan Poe: 1. “Israfel,” 2. “Annabel Lee” (2015), 3. “The Raven.” Fairouz’s keen appreciation of literature and intimate identification with his texts showed in his adoption of “Israfel” as an introduction. It established a Platonic perspective on the two vary famous texts that follow. Israfel, the otherworldly poet, lives and creates in the angelic, superlunary world of ideas. Knowledge of his art is pure ecstasy or close to it. The speaker, presumably Poe himself, cannot reach this level of energy or imagination from his place on earth, but if he were to change places with Israfel…who knows? He might surpass him. The angels are present in “Annabel Lee” as well, as an envious, destructive force which would not allow the speaker the perfection of the love he shared in childlike innocence with Annabel Lee.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But he overcomes that:

And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;


And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Necrophilia and a death-wish meet in the triumphant power of the poet’s imagination. Or should we be thinking of a more literal, American-International take on it?

Finally, “The Raven” takes up Poe’s favorite theme of human loss once again, this time casting its trajectory in the form of monomania, or obsession, the quintessential psychological counterpart to Poe’s litany-like, rhymed repetitions in both “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” The order of Fairouz’s selection allows for a powerful build-up to Poe’s greatest and most famous poem, which itself relies on suspense and a similar build-up to an inner revelation, but developed far beyond “Annabel Lee.” So, from the beginning, from his choice and arrangement of texts, Fairouz was on the right course. His treatment of the texts is extreme. With the quartet playing an accompaniment combining an expressionistic distortion of the the parlor songs of Poe’s day with an intense contemporary idiom, the words are delivered in a Sprechstimme requiring a vast vocal range as well as sounds—grunts and rasps—as alien to speech as to traditional song. His interpretation of Poe is therefore equally extreme, bringing in signs of madness early in their narrative, excepting perhaps “Israfel.” Most actors who read Poe would adopt a more restrained approach, but these are musical compositions, as much Fairouz as Poe. The composer has both co-opted and exaggerated his sources, but that, of course, is perfectly legitimate, and, as an admirer of Poe and these poems, I found Fairouz’s personal treatment enlightening. His literary sense is so acute, that he can successfully—and powerfully—make a personal expression and a cogent interpretation at the same time. The quartet—Eriko Sato, violin, Calvin Wiersma, violin, Ah Ling Neu, viola, Ruth Sommers, cello—played with commitment and confidence in following the many quick shifts of style and mood, encompassing both the beautiful playing of traditional repertoire with the harsh and strange noises of the composer’s imagination. Fairouz, I regret to say, did himself a disservice in performing the voice part himself. The songs would have benefitted immeasurably from the trained voice of an actor-singer, not least of all in projection. His voice was repeatedly covered by the strings, and this is clearly a work in which the audience has to hear and understand the words. (Fairouz’s diction was perfectly fine in the louder parts. I wonder if a bit more rehearsal of this difficult piece with the obviously thoroughly prepared quartet might have helped.) Also, a trained voice would have had a more precise command of vocal color. Finally, although I’m not a fan of costumed and staged performances of the great song cycles of Schubert and Schumann, I felt these highly dramatic settings, more in the realm of Pierrot Lunaire than Winterreise, called for some attention to dress—musician’s black at the very least, or perhaps a long coat or gown. The work really wants to be something of a performance. Fairouz’s appearance in sporty, patterned sweater made him look as if he were ready to leave town for the ski slopes as soon as he could get out of the hall.

Eriko Sato, Violin; Calvin Wiersma, Violin; Ah-Ling Neu, Viola; Ruth Sommers, Cello; Philip Edward Fisher, Piano; and Mohammed Fairouz, Composer & Vocals; perform his song cycle "Evermore." Photo © 2017 Richard Termine.

Eriko Sato, Violin; Calvin Wiersma, Violin; Ah-Ling Neu, Viola; Ruth Sommers, Cello; Philip Edward Fisher, Piano; and Mohammed Fairouz, Composer & Vocals; perform his song cycle “Evermore.” Photo © 2017 Richard Termine.

The concert opening with a memorable, full-blooded reading of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478. The large scale of the musicians’ concept was aided by the inclusion of repeats. This magnificent performance alone would have been worth a trip. I was quite thrilled by the playing of Philip Edward Fisher, an English pianist whose final training at Juilliard, after the Royal Academy, has led to his at least partial settling in New York. He brought a splendid full, warm tone from the already warm house Steinway of Weill Hall, and played with both steadiness and expression, often creating an expansive arc from Mozart’s themes, culminating in a strong, conclusive cadence, which might lead, in the appropriate context, to a hint of changes to come. The piano part is dominant in this work, rather more concerto-like than its role in Mozart’s trios, and this gave Mr. Fisher special prominence. His strong technique and penetrating insight into the form of melody and harmonic structure make him one of the most interesting younger pianists I have heard. I look forward to hearing more from him in the future.

In future programs this season, Tanya Bannister will be back in December and May, and Calvin Wiersma in February and May. Ruth Sommers will appear in all the concerts. The renowned clarinetist Charles Neidich will play in December and March, both in a rare piece by Anton Eberl, the “faux Mozart,” and a masterpiece by Mozart himself, the “Kegelstatt” Trio.

This brings me to the question of programming, which I have already touched in in general terms. One of the exciting things about this season at Festival Chamber Music is the series of rarely played works by Central European composers who were famous in their own time and important historically, but who have faded from view in the shadows of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and the rest, with whom they were connected as either pupils, collaborators, or friends: Anton Eberl (1765-1807) and Anton Reicha (1770-1836). The French guitarist François de Fossa (1775-1849) belongs in the circle of Boccherini and Dionisio Aguado.’

Woldemar Bargiel with his wife, Maria Fellinger, in 1881

Woldemar Bargiel with his wife, Maria Fellinger, in 1881

Woldemar Bargiel, as the half-brother of Clara Wieck (from her mother’s second marriage after she divorced Friedrich Wieck), played a role in the Schumann-Brahms circle and was a respected composer and teacher in his own right, working mostly in Berlin. Leo Blech and Leopold Godowski were among his pupils.

Festival Chamber Music 2017-18: 20th Century Composers

Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982) and Alexander Schaichet
Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982) and Alexander Schaichet
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Hans Krása (1899-1944)
Hans Krása (1899-1944)
Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960)


Walter Rabl (1873-1940)

Walter Rabl (1873-1940)

From roughly the generation of Dohnányi, spanning the nineteen and twentieth centuries, were Walter Rabl (1873-1940), Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982), and Hans Krása (1899-1944), as well as the better-known Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). Although Rabl gave up composing for conducting in mid-career, he wrote a quartet similar to the one we will hear that Brahms admired, as well as a Wagnerian opera. Stutschewsky and Bloch enjoyed long careers composing music steeped in their Jewish heritage, while Krása followed a path similar to Viktor Ullmann’s: from Prague to Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, where he was gassed two days after his arrival. Finally, we’ll hear a Piano Quintet by George Chadwick (1854-1931), whose career unfolded mainly in Boston, where he was Director of the New England Conservatory.

Anton Eberl (1765-1807)

Anton Eberl (1765-1807)

Of these Eberl and Reicha were especially important figures in their time. Some of Eberl’s compositions have been misattributed to Mozart himself. He may have been a pupil of Mozart and was certainly a friend. He played with Konstanze Mozart and her sister, as well as with the young Meyerbeer. As a pianist and a composer he was generally considered the equal of Beethoven, and at the concert in which Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony was performed, his, which was also on the program, was generally preferred.

Anton Reicha (1770-1836)

Anton Reicha (1770-1836)

Anton Reicha was born in Prague, but his family moved to Bonn in 1785, when he was fifteen, and it is likely that he studied alongside Beethoven with C. G. Neefe. After brief sojourns in Hamburg and Paris, he settled in Vienna, where his acquaintance with Haydn developed into a close friendship, as did his relationship with Beethoven. He left Vienna for Paris in 1808, as Beethoven himself once planned to do, and spent the rest of his long career composing and writing theoretical works and compositional treatises, while pursuing his interest in counterpoint.

In this way Festival Chamber Music will provide a panorama of the mostly Central European musical world from the eighteenth into the twentieth century, which reached out to Paris, London, and St. Petersburg. (In the arts Europe has been a whole for centuries.) These composers, fallen into the obscurity of the second tier today, form the connective tissue between the greats, as they as recognized today. Among the high points of this year’s Bard Music Festival, devoted to Chopin, were rare performances of piano concerti, by Ries, Kalkbrenner, Hummel, and Moscheles, all of which deserve an occasional turn in mainstream concert halls.

Festival Chamber Music has been an especially rich discovery for me, and I am now a regular. Most of the concerts sell out in advance, thanks to Ms. Sommers’ tireless efforts and the quality of the playing and programing, so I recommend subscribing to the season or at least buying your tickets early. Click here for either opportunity.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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