French Fireworks: Colorado Chamber Players
A preview by Betsy Schwarm
Leave it to other ensembles to fill a French-themed program with the usual suspects and rely upon Impressionistic works. In its program for January 2018, the Colorado Chamber Players has, admittedly, chosen to include Maurice Ravel, certainly a frequent favorite. However, rarely does one hear his elder countryman Ernest Chausson, and scarcely ever their predecessor Jean-Marie Leclair. The unusual, but still treasurable, repertoire – violinist Paul Primus calls it “less well known music that is of high quality” – is exactly what audiences of the Colorado Chamber Players have come to expect, and this upcoming program is a fine example.
Two French Baroque composers were named Jean-Marie Leclair; inconveniently, they were brothers. However, the Colorado Chamber Players have chosen a violin concerto from the elder of the pair, a man whose press in his own time regularly remarked upon his apparently super-human performance skills, and whose compositions suggest that the reputation was well-deserved. About twenty years younger than the more universally famed Vivaldi, Leclair wrote violin concerti that will be a new discovery for many audience members, but surely a pleasure for all.
The Colorado Chamber Players have chosen the fifth violin concerto of Leclair’s opus 7 collection. Paul Primus will take the honors as soloist, using his modern violin, though with a Baroque bow. The Colorado Chamber Players’ recent all-Baroque concert (November 2017) reinforced for Primus that, in his words, “the Baroque bow is much better suited to playing music from this era, and definitely influences articulation and bowing choices.” He finds Leclair’s music not exactly more difficult than the better-known Vivaldi repertoire, but calls listeners’ attention to the fact that it has “more ornamentation and more unexpected harmonies.”
In 1920, Paris was still mourning the death eighteen months earlier of Claude Debussy. The editor of La Revue Musicale decided to commemorate that sad passing by commissioning a variety of composers to write short, single movement works for violin and cello: no keyboard, and no other string instruments. Ravel’s contribution to the campaign appeared in the magazine in December of that year. Two years on, he would expand it into a full, four-movement sonata, though it is the original one-movement Duo that appears on this program.
Haunting of mood, even anxious at times, Ravel’s Duo will feature University of Wyoming faculty members John Fadial, violin, and Beth Vanderborgh, cello. Fadial says he and Vanderborgh have played it frequently, and that “it’s exceedingly complex to put together.” Being a pianist, not a string player, the composer consulted with colleagues as to how best to write for strings, then nevertheless followed mostly his own instincts. According to Fadial, “he’s gone to great lengths to express what’s possible, not what’s easy.” For example, sometimes, Ravel writes the violin very low in its range and, at the same time, the cello very high, so that one might need to really focus to discern which instrument is playing which phrase. Moreover, in places, Ravel has chosen harmonies that may sound more Stravinskyesque than Impressionistic. Never one opposed to exploring new ideas, Ravel clearly expected performers – and listeners – to be equally open-minded.
The ensemble will round out its program with the largest scale of the three works: Ernest Chausson’s Concert from 1899. Chausson consciously chose the title “Concert” as a reflection back to the French Baroque, when it was a term for instrumental chamber music in which one or two soloists would be juxtaposed against a string ensemble. In this case, that ensemble is a string quartet, comprised of Fadial and Vanderborgh, along with violinist Paul Primus and violist Barbara Hamilton. The solo parts are for piano and violin; for this program, pianist Andrew Cooperstock and violinist William Terwilliger will do the honors.
Cooperstock and Terwilliger often perform together as the Opus Two duo, and both attest that the Chausson has “long been on our bucket list.” Certainly, there is limited repertoire providing solo roles for both piano and violin. However, Cooperstock says their inclination toward the Chausson is driven by more than solo spotlights: “There’s so much interaction with the quartet, though there are places where it’s just us, and other places where it’s just them. It’s the best of both worlds: chamber music and a concerto in one.” Terwilliger adds, “everyone has a lot of expressive and dramatic meat, and it’s almost always beautiful with that gorgeous French elegance.” It’s ambitiously proportioned, spanning three-quarters of an hour, but when the results are exquisitely crafted as this, both performers and listeners can revel at the opportunity.
Audiences will have three opportunities to hear these French masterworks from the Colorado Chamber Players. Excerpts from the program will be given Tuesday, January 9 at St. John’s Cathedral, 12 noon, 14th and Washington in Denver as part of its free Music at Noon series; details can be found at http://www.sjcathedral.org/Music/ConcertsEvents/MusicatNoon.aspx.
There will also be a gala house concert in Lafayette at the Opus Two Hall, 9167 Davidson, on Saturday, January 13, at 7pm; for that event, reservations will be required. Details and contact information are available through the ensemble’s website:
A final performance is set for Sunday, January 14 at 2pm at the Boulder Public Library, 1001 Arapahoe, as part of the library’s concert series: find specifics at https://calendar.boulderlibrary.org/calendar/events. That presentation and the one at St. John’s are both free of charge, which may be appealing. However, wine and appetizers may be even better, and those are only available at the Lafayette house concert. Any of the recital opportunities guarantees an immersion in the delights of French chamber music with the Colorado Chamber Players.