Winter Chamber Music Festival opens with wide-ranging program

Sat Jan 09, 2010 at 2:06 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775-1838)

Play the Clarinet Quartet No. 3 by Bernhard Henrik Crusell as a blind test, telling listeners it’s a recently rediscovered work by Mozart, and even skilled auditors could well be taken in. Such is the galant elegance and quicksilver grace of the music, reflective of the world of the Swedish royal court where Crusell served as principal clarinetist for four decades.

The Crusell was the centerpiece of the wide-roving program that opened this year’s installment of the Winter Chamber Music Festival Friday night at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston.

With a lineup heavy on Chicago Symphony Orchestra members and top area freelance musicians, the Northwestern University series serves an eclectic mix of repertoire through January 24. Friday’s generous opening program certainly qualified, and, if the performances weren’t entirely consistent, the concert set the scene nicely for this year’s events.

Once past the first few minutes of Crusell’s opening movement, the abrupt cadenzas and unexpected pauses make clear this is not a work by Mozart. Still, if the Finnish-Swedish composer is not as fecund in thematic richness or as original in his working out of material, Crusell’s quartet is melodic and charming, and clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom and colleagues delivered an agile and vivacious performance that provided fine advocacy.

Schubert’s late Trio in E flat shows the composer investing the genre with a new expansive breadth. Though even Schubert seems to run out of ideas in the overlong finale, the facility and expressive subtlety is all one would expect with the trio’s surface bonhomie repeatedly undermined by a dark, pensive introspection.

Violinist and festival director Blair Milton, cellist Stephen Balderston and pianist Andrea Swan—aka the Evanston Chamber Ensemble—-offered an admirable performance that judged the ebb and flow skillfully and surmounted Schubert’s technical challenges with aplomb. Yet there were more than a few prosaic moments over the long haul, and while Balderston made the most of his opportunities, Swan’s vital yet emphatic keyboard touch could have used some of the cellist’s delicacy. Milton seemed to be having an off night with wiry tone and repeated patchy intonation.

After some initial staging confusion, the concert opened with a deft mix of three Gabrieli works for brass and winds, which served as a fitting prelude for Stravinsky’s Octet.

The composer related that the idea for the Octet came to him in a dream (no, really), and while the work is celebrated as the composer’s first successful Neo-Classical work, Stravinsky draws upon Bach, the Venetian Renaissance and the French Baroque as well.

But the end result is wholly and delightfully Stravinsky. The musicians (flutist Camille Churchfield, clarinetist Bloom, bassoonists Lewis Kirk and Christopher Millard, trumpeters Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer and trombonists Randy Hawes and Michael Mulcahy) delivered a spirited, winning performance, putting across the gamboling invention of the theme and variations and bringing free-wheeling bravura and wit to the finale, with rapid-fire exchanges of Stravinsky’s melodies.

The Winter Chamber Music Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Sunday with guest cellist Lynn Harrell joining the festival musicians for Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 and String Sextet No. 1. 847-467-4000;

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