Now in its 14th year, the Concert Artist Program of Kean University has brought together world-renowned musicians to perform imaginative concerts on the University campus in Union, NJ. The concert of 6 October 2011 was no exception and was of special interest to members of the IDG and IDS/NA due to the performance of Draeseke's Clarinet Sonata and the dedication of the program to the late Alan Krueck, who spent much of his career researching and promoting the music of Draeseke and Raff.
This was not the first occasion that the Concert Artist Program has performed the music of Felix Draeseke; in the autumn of 2008 a remarkable concert devoted solely to his music was performed. Dr. Krueck provided a pre-concert talk for that earlier event and reviewed the concert - a report that is still available on-line.
That 2008 concert program included Draeseke's String Quintet in F op 77 in a version by Anthony Scelba where the where the two cello parts are arranged into idiomatic cello and double bass parts in Draeseke's style. It was Krueck who at that time suggested that Raff's Sextet for Strings of 1872 would also work in an arrangement including double bass and that version was created by Scelba and performed at Kean.
The third and fourth movements of Raff Sextet opened the concert and were characterized by superb individual playing and interplay among the musicians was nearly flawless. While these players do perform together occasionally, the ensemble playing suggested that they perform with far more regularity. The opening Larghetto is followed by a series of eight variations where themes are tossed from player to another. While all individual playing was excellent the first violin has prominent roles here and these were superbly mastered by Brennan Sweet and his 1713 "Prince Ludwig Ferdinand of Bavaria" Stradivarius. Since Raff so seldom appears on concert programs it would be churlish for me to grouse that Raff was represented with only the last two movements of the sextet but with the dedication of the concert to the memory to the late Dr. Krueck, starting the program with the Larghetto could be considered appropriate. However, with such an excellent performance one would hope that sometime in the near future these same artists would play the work in it's entirety.
Following necessary stage rearrangements, Draeseke's Clarinet Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 38 was performed by the young and talented Canadienne, Romie de Guise-Langlois, accompanied by the brilliant Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez. Draeseke's Sonata was also performed at Kean in 2008 and Krueck lavished praise over that performance with Russian clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein also accompanied by Ms. Martinez. While I was not present for that earlier performance, this one may have even further raised the bar. It was a dazzling performance, in particular in the rondo-finale which makes the heaviest demands on the players. The dynamic ranges called for from soft and evocative to brash and lively were thrilling to hear. Draeseke's tricky rhythmic motives were negotiated with both skill and virtuosity. Guise-Langlois had this music in her blood, and, apparently, in her mind as she scarcely glanced at her score frequently making eye-contact with Ms. Martinez for constant interplay between clarinetist and pianist. It should be noted that Martinez recently appeared with the Chicago Symphony, substituting for an indisposed Leon Fleischer - one can anticipate that she will follow the model where a last minute substitution by a young artist results in being sought out elsewhere.
While Martinez merited substantial praise, word must be said about her instrument -the piano itself. When it was initially rolled out, this concert grand appeared to belarger than any that I have seen or heard and with good reason - it was! This wasmy first encounter with a Fazioli instrument; this model F308 is the largest regular production piano currently built, being over 3 meters (over 10 feet) long and one and a half times as heavy as the popular Steinway model D. The Kean University instrument was the first in the New York metropolitan area and was certainly put to good use in the Draeseke. The prestigious Juiliard school recently purchased a Fazioli piano, creating quite a stir in Steinway circles.
Following intermission the concluding work was Brahms Second String Sextet in G. Following two nowadays obscure contemporaries, Brahms - who wrote possibly the two most famous works in the string sextet literature - was found to be in good company with the now less well known concert mates. This time, instruments were arranged antiphonally for great effect and all the praises about superb ensemble heard in the Raff Sextet were more than apparent here as well. Once again, all players can be commended for their keen sense of artistry and ensemble.
As noted previously, the two sextets were played in Dr. Scelba's editions for cello and double bass. One might fear that such arrangements would result in undue heaviness with the substitution of a still lower-pitched addition. Nothing could be further from the truth and musical lines were clear and often benefited from the extra dimension of the bass. These are thoughtful and convincing arrangements that accord closely with the composer's intentions. Classical repertoire provides few opportunities for the double bass outside the realm of full orchestra. Scelba, believing that playing and study of chamber music provides the development of unique skills has prepared a number of such editions for that very purpose. In these versions the double bass part is not just a transcription of one of the cello parts, but a carefully calculated arrangement of bass line drawing on specific instances from both cello parts. The Raff Sextet, as well as the Draeseke Quintet, along with other Scelba arrangements, are available from either Ludwin Music or Edition Silvertrust.
Lastly one must give notice to the performance space itself. Enlow Hall is as fine a venue for chamber music as any. Recently reconstructed (it opened in 2009), it seats about 350 on the main floor and balcony and boasts a large performing space that juts out well into the audience (see photos and video) to great effect and affords increased intimacy between listeners and performers.
In conclusion, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of music making at the highest level. A video of the concert is available at the Kean University website and is a strongly recommended view.