A Triumph of Music and Musicianship
7th Annual Surf & Sounds Chamber Music Festival
One of the musical highlights of an Outer Banks summer for the past seven years has been the Surf & Sounds Chamber Music Series. The 2021 version did not disappoint; in fact, if anything, the bar just got raised higher.
Presenting three different programs over four nights, it is not possible to write about every piece of music that was played. Rather there are certain compositions and performances that stood out even among four evenings of extraordinary music.
The core group of the Surf & Sounds Series is Music Director Jake Fowler on cello, Luke Fleming, viola, and Katie Hyun and Liz Vonderheide, violin. What truly makes these four musicians standout is their ability to interpret and perform a remarkable range of music, from Joseph Haydn’s 18th century string quartets to contemporary composers who challenge how we think about music.
There were three performances in particular that highlighted the range of music and the expertise of the musicians.
Contemporary American composer Libby Larsen has a huge body of work, her compositions include full orchestral works, opera and children’s compositions. “Juba,” first performed in 1986, is unlike anything we have heard from the Surf & Sounds musicians.
Written for piano and cello, juba is a form of African-American dance and what Larsen has created is intense, challenging and at once atonal and arrhythmic, yet so structured that the listener never loses sight of where the piece is going.
This is a composition that demands a level of skill that very few cellists possess. Simply watching Fowler as his fingers dance up and down the neck of his cello is almost exhausting.
Rapid-fire arpeggios and a series of quick trilling notes are not part of the typical cello repertoire. On piano Amanda Halstead, who performed with the quartet on Tuesday and Wednesday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Southern Shores and St. Andrew’s in Nags Head, broke into rhythmic clapping midway through the piece. That was part of the way the music was written.
When Larsen described Juba, she wrote, “I wanted to compose a work which carried the rhythmic, improvisatory nature of American music but maintained the formal flow of Western European music.” She envisioned the cellist as the dancer and the piano as onlooker, and it is the cello that is the focus of the piece.
Ultimately what makes this piece of music so compelling is that complex interaction between cello and piano, confirming, perhaps, Larsen’s vision of music that would link dancer and audience.
With Halstead on piano, the Surf & Sounds Quartet are able to take on chamber music that has been written for the piano quintet and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57 is an amazing example of how much expression can be encapsulated in music.
Luke Fleming, took a moment to put the piece in context before the performance, explaining that it was written in 1940 when it was apparent that the nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany was sure to be breached by the Germans. A time of uncertainty in Russia, the Soviet government wanted something uplifting that that would also highlight the composer’s creativity.
What Shostakovich created is at times uplifting—perhaps even joyous—yet there is often a brooding, anticipatory quality to the music that runs throughout the piece.
The first and second movements—Prelude Lento and Fugue: Adagio—are slow and meditative , taking full advantage of the G minor key to set the stage for what is to come. Although the piano is often the centerpiece of the movements, creating the theme for all that follows, the the violins create their own sense of anticipation as they play off one another. There is also a marvelous viola melody weaving its way throughout the first two movements.
Everything gets blown up in the Scherzo Allegretto. Fast, furious yet surprisingly melodic, there is an element to it that suggests military music. What makes the movement so compelling though is how Shostakovich takes full advantage the dynamic range of the instruments.
He then slows the pace once again in the wonderfully melodic Intermezzo: Lento. And the music then flows seamlessly into the Finale:Allegretto. The melody is so strong that it could be sung, yet beneath it is a growing feeling of anticipation, perhaps dread, creating a sense of a story within the music.
This is an amazing piece of music, But what truly makes it come alive is the ability of the five musicians to interpret Shostakovich’s musical and weave it together into a cohesive story. In particular Katie Hyun on violin at times seems to soar over the music, never losing her connection to the other musicians, yet her playing is distinctive and memorable.
Performed Friday evening at the Dare County Arts Council Gallery, Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D Major is one of the better known of the composers pieces. Written early in his career, he was 21 or 22 when he composed it, the music is not considered as challenging or difficult as some of his later work. However, there are elements of the work that elevate it and make it an important part of classical music.
The flutist for the evening was Debra Cross, the Principal Flutist for the Virginia Symphony. Her style is clean and clear, each note perfectly placed— it would be hard to imagine a better performance of the principal instrument of this piece.
The flute alone—as magnificent as Cross was—does not carry the music. Ultimately it was the interweaving of Vanderheide on violin, Fleming, viola and Fowler on cello that breathes life into the notes.
The first movement, Allegro, contains the melody that people may recognize, but it is the second and third movements, Adagio and Rondo, where Mozart’s genius shines through.
The second movement in particular is fascinating in how he uses the string instruments. The entire movement is played pizzicato by the strings. As much as anything else performed this past week, that one movement may highlight the remarkable skill of the musicians. Because the accompaniment is entirely pizzicato and played in unison, every not must be precisely played—there is no room for error, because even the slightest mistake will be immediately apparent.
There were no mistakes. It was absolute perfection.
There is at the end of the movement a slight pause and almost immediately the Rondo begins. The last movement brings everything together. The accompaniment is no longer plucked, yet is very similar to the feel of the second movement.
The meter of the Rondo, though, is much more similar to the Allegro first movement and the melody is reminiscent of it.
Although a fairly short piece for chamber music, it is ultimately a very satisfying musical experience.