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June Chamber Music Festival I

Kreeger Museum, residence designed by Philip Johnson and Richard FosterWashington is swimming in money, most of it concentrated in the upper part of the city's northwest quadrant. In 1967, David and Carmen Kreeger had a young architect named Philip Johnson (with Richard Foster) design and build them a modern home on Foxhall Road in that wealthy neighborhood. They put together an admirable collection of art, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, leaving their home to become the Kreeger Museum to contain it.

The Kreegers may not be quite in the class of collectors like Duncan Phillips or Albert Barnes, but the combination of the spare, modern building -- a machine-turned modernization of things like arches, arcades, and vaults -- with the tastefully presented collection of beautiful art has great appeal. The building shows Johnson's connection with historical architecture, not unlike the Byzantine inspiration for the Pre-Columbian museum Johnson built at Dumbarton Oaks and the Benedictine one for the new wing of St. Anselm's Abbey. (I happen to teach at the school run by that monastery, and I have seen the plans for the church that Johnson designed but that was never built.)

The Kreeger also hosts a few concerts in the building's Great Hall, including its third annual June Chamber Festival this month. This event is now three years old, and it features the American Chamber Players, a group formed by Miles Hoffman from musicians who used to play for the now defunct Library of Congress Summer Chamber Festival. The concerts take place in the Great Hall, the long central room in the Kreeger home, three of the cube modules that make up the entire structure. The acoustics are strange for speaking: I noticed at intermission that, standing at different places in the Great Hall, I could hear people several feet away speaking as if they were whispering in my ear. It works fairly well for music, even where I was seated, at the far end away from the performers.

Miles Hoffman, violistBoth a member of the museum staff and Miles Hoffman himself joked about his reputation for long-windedness (I suppose it is a career hazard for someone who works at NPR). That did not stop him, however, from going into his NPR schtick during his lengthy introduction. The music of this program, for various combinations, was fairly reserved. We started with the Trio in G Minor for Flute, Cello, and Piano, op. 63, by Carl Maria von Weber. It's not heard all that often, but it featured the best player of the group all evening, flutist Sara Stern. She brought a lovely tone to the serenade opening of the third movement, where she was against Alberto Parrani's pizzicato cello and simple piano chords from Jean-Louis Haguenauer.

Hoffman's narrative was most helpful for the second piece, a Dialogue for Violin and Viola (1956) by relatively unknown Belgian composer Armand Merck. Hoffman's friend, he explained, lived in the house in Meudon, outside Paris, that used to belong to the composer and that still contained piles of his unpublished music. A series of themes are presented in the first two movements, returning again in the third movement. It is an interesting work, mostly because there are not that many pieces for this combination of instruments.

Flutist Sara Stern gave a calm and plain performance of Bach's E-flat major flute sonata, BWV 1031, with Jean-Louis Haguenauer. There were few ornaments and not much dynamic contrast, as Haguenauer handcuffed his playing to allow Stern's melodies to come through clearly. When I play or hear that unadorned bass line in the piano's left hand, I wonder if we are not supposed to add chords, although there are no figures. At times, it just sounds hollow. The last piece was the Mozart G minor piano quartet, K. 478, a challenging piece that the four players mostly handled well. The first movement (Allegro) was strong, the lovely result of a clear understanding of form and line, and the second movement was equally charming. The rondo of the final movement is based on a cute, Haydnesque theme, for which Mozart provides his own written out ornamentation on the repeats. Like the whole program, this performance was mostly good, certainly pleasant listening, but never in the category of extraordinary.


george pieler said...

Thanks Charles for giving background on the unusual venue for these concerts; it must also have taken great self-control to touch on the subject of NPR without...reminding us What you Really Think.

Charles T. Downey said...

George, judging by your comment, my opinion on NPR is well enough known to warrant some self-restraint.