The Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival: A Gem in UVA Country

Summer music festivals in both the pop and classical music worlds can come with a lot of flash and dash. But not to be overlooked in our region is a more modest gem tacked onto the end of festival season – the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival.

Violinist Timothy Summers. Photo courtesy of the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival.

Violinist Timothy Summers. Photo courtesy of the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival.

Drawing a nice mix of “town and gown” audiences in the home of the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville festival obtains its special appeal from the constant and active participation of its two founders, violinist Timothy Summers and cellist Raphael Bell. The two Charlottesville natives – both Juilliard-trained musicians and both now residing in Europe during the rest of the year – continually form and re-form trios, quartets and quintets over the course of the festival’s two weeks from among their musical colleagues around the U.S. and the world.

The result is an unusually tight display of ensemble playing without the fussiness and over-the-top showmanship that some of today’s string quartets and other chamber ensembles can demonstrate, sometimes at the expense of sound quality and intonation. Mr. Summers and Mr. Bell themselves, after 16 continuous years of the Charlottesville festival, barely have to lift an eye to one another during their pieces to create an ensemble line that carries out the tremendous variety of intentions that chamber music can express.

Cellist Raphael Bell. Photo courtesy of the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival.

Cellist Raphael Bell. Photo courtesy of the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival.

Much of this was on display at the festival concert last Thursday evening in Charlottesville’s historic Paramount Theater. Mr. Summers and Mr. Bell combined with pianist Mimi Solomon to perform Beethoven’s distinctive Ghost Trio. It’s a unique entry in the classical literature that scholars discovered after Beethoven’s death derived from sketches that Beethoven made for a never-completed opera on Shakespeare’s Macbeth and may have been intended to represent the play’s witches or “weird sisters.”

Pulling off the Ghost Trio requires the three musicians to maintain the constant intensity of some very slowly changing chords in the second of three movements, while each instrument is periodically called upon to declare a vaguely threatening melody that wraps around a ghostly-sounding chord. This dire movement is sandwiched between two other movements that feature more typically “conversational” and even joyous passages among the violin, cello, and piano. This entire package flowed seamlessly out of the ensemble’s playing.

Later in the concert the three musicians were joined by violinist Sharon Roffman for Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1. (The versatile Mr. Summers moved to viola to complete the Brahms requirement of a violin, viola, cello and piano.) The quartet ends with a Hungarian gypsy rondo in which Brahms inserted clever solo riffs for the various instruments in between numerous restatements of the gypsy theme. The ensemble gave an extra-speedy flourish to the final time through the rondo theme, and plainly set the audience on its ear and happily out the door. But the ensemble was equally effective in the quartet’s earlier movements, which oscillate between minor and major themes and present gently lilting or lyrical passages as a contrast to more brooding or intense moments.

Violinist Sharon Roffman. Photo by Allen Cohen.

Violinist Sharon Roffman. Photo by Allen Cohen.

The festival’s free noontime concert the following day, also at the Paramount Theater, took on a slightly more informal character and it was wonderful to see large groups of schoolchildren brought in for the event, something that I’m told is an annual feature of the festival.

A bit of an unusual choice was to anchor the daytime concert with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s large-scale Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, which gave Mr. Bell a chance to show off his virtuoso cello chops across Rachmaninoff’s four movements (although the audience seemed to interpret the music as four entirely separate pieces).

But the rest of the free concert comprised miniatures for various combinations of instruments, which worked wonderfully well for the assembled audience. The highlight was Sharon Roffman’s performance of two songs from Porgy and Bess arranged for violin (with piano accompaniment) by legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz. In both “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Ms. Roffman jazzily pulled off Heifetz’s trick of having the violinist access an adjoining string for a temporary “double-stop” of notes to create an impression of more than just a single violin and piano.

Ms. Roffman also loves to take every opportunity to place the far end of her bow on a string and sweep its entire length back across the string, imparting the impression of extra rhythmic motion to the music. She even did this in the more classical literature during both the Thursday evening and Friday noontime concerts.

The Charlottesville festival continues through next Sunday, September 20, and I shouldn’t leave the impression that in its classical vein it sticks to composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Given the ability to recruit diverse world-class musicians via Mr. Summers’ and Mr. Bell’s contacts in both North America and Europe, the festival also annually presents some adventurous and even brand-new compositions. Much of this will be on display at its concert next Friday evening, September 18, at The Southern Café & Music Hall in Charlottesville in a program they’ve dubbed “Music Fresh Squeezed,” and in the closing performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time on Sunday, September 20 at UVA’s Old Cabell Hall.

The festival does face one issue its organizers know about, which is the acoustics at its principal performance venue of the Paramount Theater. It’s a beautiful old movie theater and has to be a great place to watch the innovative high-definition broadcasts now offered from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the National Theatre in London. But on its own it’s too large for small chamber groups, and out in the audience the instruments tend to sound further away than they actually are.

I’d suggest a more aggressive sound design than the pair of microphones suspended high above the performers in a manner often seen in symphony concerts. Dedicated mikes for individual instruments like the violin, viola and cello might look unusual for chamber music, but given how often that’s employed for everything from mixed jazz ensembles to theater pit orchestras, I bet it would do the trick.

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The Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival performed on Thursday, September 10, 2015 at 8 p.m. and Friday, September 11, 2015 at 12:30 p.m. at the Paramount Theater, 215 East Main Street in Charlottesville, VA. Running time on Thursday was 1 hour and 50 minutes with one 20-minute intermission. Running time on Friday was 1 hour and 10 minutes. The festival continues through Sunday, September 20, 2015 at various venues in Charlottesville. Check the schedule for times and places.

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