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Camerata San Antonio, Olmos Ensemble

The season begins

September 30, 2012

Writing and photographic projects and lingering summer doldrums -- well, laziness -- prevented my timely acknowledgement of the new music season’s start. Herewith, a brief omnibus review of the story thus far:

Camerata San Antonio opened its season with an all-French program of landmark works by Debussy, Ravel and Franck. I caught the superb Sept. 28 performance in Boerne’s First United Methodist Church; the San Antonio performance is scheduled for Sept. 30 in Christ Episcopal church.

Camerata does not have a core roster but assembles its musicians as needed to play chamber works in a wide range of instrumentations, with emphasis on strings. When the programs have included string quartets, the personnel has varied, but the results have generally been excellent. To judge from the Boerne concert, this season’s quartet contingent may be the best yet, with violinists Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Storer joining Camerata cofounders Ken Freudigman (cello) and Emily Freudigman (viola). Mr. Zerweck, who joined the San Antonio Symphony as acting assistant concertmaster four seasons ago and has impressed in numerous chamber music appearances, proved once again to be one of San Antonio’s brightest young talents, a musician great verve, intensity and depth.

Ravel’s String Quartet in F is among the most familiar in the repertoire, and among the greatest, but its stature seemed to rise even higher in Camerata’s taut, alert and fully engaged performance. The troupe clearly had given a lot of thought to tempo relations, and phrases were consistently shaped in a way that propelled the music forward. The rhythms were right, and the players were all scrupulously in tune, making Ravel’s modern harmonies totally fresh.

Pianist Vivienne Spy joined the string players in Franck’s great Piano Quintet in F Minor. Michael Fink’s program note mentions that with this work Franck “shocked his audience by introducing a chamber work containing emotion so intense that it was interpeted to be erotic,” and composer Camille Saint-Saens, playing the piano part at the work’s premiere, walked off the stage in disgust when Franck appreciatively tried to present him with the score. I’m not sure “erotic” is quite the right word to describe the first movement, which mounts to a pounding, grunting, ejaculatory climax, maybe the sexiest music since the hoochie-koochie dance from the opera “Samson et Dalila” by that fellow -- what was his name? -- oh right, Saint-Saens. Then calm is restored with, perhaps, the lighting of a cigarette.

There was some divergence in temperament in the Camerata performance -- Ms. Spy and Ms. Storer struck me as a bit more objective in the first movement, the others more overtly intense. As in the Ravel quartet, the whole  performance was very well planned. The slow middle movement floated dreamily. The finale was full of energy.

The concert opened with Debussy’s Cello Sonata in a performance that was distinguished on every count, but most remarkable for Mr. Freudigman’s jazzy, prickly rhythms in the pizzicato passages of the second movement. The acoustics of the Boerne church’s sanctuary pleasingly enhanced his instrument’s upper harmonics. His tone has always been gorgeous, but it sounded livelier than ever on this occasion. Ms. Spy and the cellist both seemed fully at home in Debussy’s distinctive pulse.

By tradition,  San Antonio’s classical music season is not allowed to begin until the Olmos Ensemble fires the starter’s pistol, usually soon after Labor Day. This year, the chamber group jumped the gun, as it were, by firing it on August 19 with music by Mozart, Kodaly and Rebecca Clark. Then the second shot rang out on Sept. 17, with a very mixed bag of works from the past 80 years or so. Both concerts were presented in First Unitarian Universalist church.

Clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg was first among equals in both outings, in four very diverse vehicles. On August 19, he was the elegant soloist in Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat for clarinet and winds, with its sublime slow movement and its brilliant finale; and he paired with violist Lauren Magnus in Clark’s Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale, an intriguing piece in which the two instruments often play near each other in pitch, like two somewhat different personalities joined at the hip.

On Sept. 17, Mr. Shterenberg stayed on the light side with Jean Francaix’s Theme and Variations for Clarinet and Piano (Daniel Anastasio), which includes a sort of goofball rag and concludes with a jazzy, stride-influenced frenzy; and Lev Atmovyan’s arrangements of four charming waltzes by Dmitri Shostakovich, for flute/piccolo (the excellent Martha Long), clarinet and piano.

The other works on the Sept. 17 program were well played but not, to my ear, equipped with staying power. Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano was in a very conservative modern style, notable mainly for some arresting harmonic shifts in the opening slow movement.  Neither Edmund Rubbra’s Sonata for Oboe (Mark Ackerman) and Piano nor Edward Niedermaier’s Sonata for English Horn (Jennifer Berg) and Piano seemed headed any place in particular, though they filled the time nicely enough, and Niedermaier led some moderately interesting excursions through the near and distant suburbs of tonality.

Mike Greenberg