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Offbeat composers enliven chamber festival

July 5, 2013


The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival has long been well-known for its programming of rarely heard but interesting pieces, and this year's concerts, which begin tonight at Palm Beach Atlantic University's Persson Hall, have a healthy helping of the unusual.

The festival, which consists of four consecutive three-day weekends in three different venues, will feature ensembles from duos to trios, quintets, sextets and dectets (though no quartets), and include music by canonical composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Dvorak.

But it also will contain the offbeat. The concerts, which are set for 7 p.m. on Fridays at PBAU, and are repeated at 8 p.m. Saturdays at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach, open in Week 1 with the Fantaisie (Op. 124) for violin and harp of Camille Saint-Saens, and the Trumpet Sonata of the contemporary American composer Eric Ewazen. It closes with a nine-instrument version of the lush, lovely Serenade No. 1 (in D, Op. 11) of Johannes Brahms.

On Week 2 comes what may be the highlight of the festival: the Piano Quintet (in F-sharp minor, Op. 67) of the fine American composer and piano virtuosa Amy Beach (1867-1944). Born Amy Cheney in Henniker, N.H., she was a child prodigy who debuted at 16 as a soloist, and after her marriage to a Boston surgeon a couple years later devoted herself to composition, and was billed in the high Victorian upper-middle-class manner of her day as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.

After her husband's death in 1910, she resumed her performing career, making triumphant tours of Europe while also keeping up with her composition. She wrote more than 300 works, and was most well- known in her time for her songs, particularly two set to words by Robert Browning: Ah, Love But a Day, and The Year's at the Spring.

She has in recent years become the best-known of the school of American composers known as the Boston Classicists; they included John Knowles Paine, George Whitfield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell Arthur Foote, and other names still known mostly to specialists. But Beach is enjoying something of a revival, and pianist Lisa Leonard, who urged her festival colleagues to program the work, said the quintet, written in 1908, is probably her finest piece of chamber music.

"I fell in love with Beach's music back when I was in school at the Manhattan School of Music," said Leonard, who teaches at Lynn University. The Manhattan School faculty included Joanne Polk, a pianist who has recorded all of Beach's piano music and is widely credited with drawing more current attention to the composer's work. "I started hearing her music back then, and every time I've had the opportunity to do a piano quintet or a trio, I've always suggested, 'Let's do Amy Beach.'

"And I don't know why, but (many) presenters are always like, 'Yeah, we could do that, but let's do something else.' Finally, this year was the year I said it, and everyone said, 'Yeah, let's do the quintet,'" she said. "I also have been wanting, in terms of this festival, to get back to doing less frequently played works ... but that were accessible works. And that's exactly what she is: She's a beautiful Romantic composer."

Leonard said the quintet is written such that each of the five players contributes equally to the "expressive elements" of the work. "It's very dramatic, very chromatic in a post-Brahmsian way ... The middle movement is the heart of it, and it's what she does best, which is write very poetic, lyrical lines. The last movement ... is exciting, dark, and it has very virtuosic piano writing," said Leonard, adding that she is "completely confident" that audiences of all kinds will embrace it.

That same Week 2 lineup also includes a piece by another woman composer, France's Claude Arrieu (real name: Louise-Marie Simon), whose Dixtuor pour Instruments a Vent (Dectet for Winds) was composed in 1967. The program, which will be presented July 12-14, opens with the Serenade (in D, Op. 25) for flute, violin and viola of Beethoven.

The Week 3 series, set for July 19-21, opens with a scherzo for wind quintet by French composer Eugene Bozza, followed by two sextets for wind quintet and trumpet: A treatment of Una voce poco fa, Rosina's aria from Rossini's Barber of Seville, arranged by Pierre Renard and trumpeter Thierry Caens, and Clifford Shipp's Six Variations on a 13th-Century Minnelied. The program also includes the Clarinet Trio of Aram Khachaturian and the String Quintet No. 2 (in G, Op. 77) of Dvorak.

The concerts in Week 4 (July 26-28) also feature a large piano quintet, this one the Piano Quintet No. 1 (in C minor, Op. 1) of Ernst von Dohnanyi, a work that showcases the Hungarian pianist and composer's affinity with Brahms and his gift for memorable tunes. "I love that piece," Leonard said. "Between that and the Beach, there are some good melodies there."

The programs also contain two works for a slightly different version of a wind quintet, but with an English horn substituting for the horn in the usual party of five; that's the case with the Quintet in the Form of a Choros, composed in 1928 by Brazil's Heitor Villa-Lobos. A few years later (1933), Igor Stravinsky arranged his Pastorale, an early song, for violin, oboe, English horn, clarinet and bassoon; it will be played before the Villa-Lobos. The concerts will open with the Duo No. 1 (in G major, K. 423) for violin and viola of Mozart.

The festival, now in its 22nd year, is charging $25 a concert, or $85 for a four-concert subscription. Tickets are available at the door, by calling 800-330-6874, or by visiting

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