New York Times
January 24, 2003

Since 1977 Chamber Music America has been providing services and support - meaning everything from information to commissioning fees - to ensembles that play chamber music as well as the organizations that present it.

Every year its members gather in New York for a national conference that is part master class and part trade show: between seminars on grant writing, marketing, tension and pain reduction for performers, acoustics and time management, participants roam around an exhibition hall where managers, publishers and record companies show their wares.

This year the organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary, so in addition to its conference at the Hilton New York from Jan. 16 through last Sunday it offered a marathon concert at Symphony Space on Saturday. Of the 100 groups that sought a place on the eight-and-a-half-hour program, 17 were selected. In keeping with the expansive definition of chamber music that Chamber Music America adopted a few years ago, slots in the marathon were allocated to world music and jazz as well as classical music.

That approach has its benefits. In addition to yielding a varied and sometimes surprising marathon program it puts pressure on conventional ensembles to find fresh approaches to their repertory without violating the essence of the music they play. In the segment I caught - the home stretch from 8:30 to 11:30 - there was a bit of everything.

Bimbetta, an all-female vocal ensemble that specializes in early music, offered songs by Luigi Rossi and Monteverdi as well as a medley drawing on music by a handful of lesser-known composers. If it were a rock group, one might describe Bimbetta's stage manner and dress as retro: their dress is a bit 60's-ish, and there is a touch of the Shangri-Las in the physical gestures that accompany their singing. Vocally, the performance had its loose moments, but if Bimbetta isn't obsessive about ensemble polish, they give an entertaining show.

Concertante, a string sextet, offered a luxurious, rich-hued account of Schoenberg's "VerklŠrte Nacht." If the ensemble erred in its reading, it was in the degree to which it allowed Schoenberg's nascent modernism to be subsumed in the rich soup of Romantic string texture, with throbbing vibrato and sweetening dynamics. But all those elements are in the score, and how an ensemble balances them is a matter of taste. Given the intensity and sheer beauty of the sound Concertante produced, it was easy to understand the choice they made. And a listener came to appreciate that choice later in the evening when the Juilliard String Quartet closed the concert with an unaccountably dull, flat rendering of Beethoven's Quartet in F (Op. 135).

The Fula Flute Ensemble mixed West African traditional music with Western elements, most notably in "Teriya," a set of variations on a French-Canadian folk song. The group's instrumentation was based around the tambin, a wooden African flute, and also included the kora (a lute), a balafon (an African xylophone) and a fully Western double bass. The music was bright and tactile, and much of the solo flute playing, by Bailo Bah and Sylvain Leroux, involved vocalizing into the flute, an effect that jazz fans would know from the early work of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and that rock fans would know from Ian Anderson's performances with Jethro Tull.

Also in the final segment of the marathon, Kamikaze Ground Crew, a jazz band, offered a moving deconstruction of Hans Eisler's setting of Brecht's "Easter Sunday, 1935" as the centerpiece of its set. And the New Century Saxophone Quartet gave a lively account of Michael Torke's burbling "July" and somewhat drier readings of excerpts from Bach's "Art of the Fugue."



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