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Making Sparks

In its second year, VCU's ChamberFest moves in a risky direction.


If this is the image that "chamber music" conjures up in your mind, ChamberFest 2003 at Virginia Commonwealth University is worth checking out.

If chamber music is well performed, sparks fly. It's as if an electric current were passing among the four or so musicians who have the stage to themselves. Unmediated by a director, the music comes alive in the faces, bodies and instruments of the players: each one is a conductor, in both a musical and electrical sense.

The VCU event, taking place Feb. 1-8, brings together 16 musicians to play in various combinations for four concerts. Though they are all fine players with extensive backgrounds in chamber music, the focus of the festival is on the music rather than the people, and here, too, electricity surges.

In each concert, James Wilson, artistic director of the festival and a cellist, has programmed compositions from widely different historic periods. For example, the opening concert Feb. 1 begins with the world premiere of "Run," a piano quartet by Charlottesville composer Judith Shatin. Then it steps back 200 years for Boccherini's "Quintet in C major" for strings, and ends with the "Dumky" Piano Trio by Dvorak.

"I think it's effective programming to put something familiar next to something unknown," Wilson says. "That creates a comfort zone for the audience and makes it easier to hear new pieces in a new way."

Ideally, the juxtaposition of the pieces sheds light on their similarities and differences — a light that wouldn't be on were it a more traditional programmatic setting. "It's important to have a big mix of kinds of music per concert," Wilson says. "Chamber music in Richmond doesn't have much mix." There's the "new music" chamber events, he says, and more frequently, traditional "classical" concerts.

The Feb. 7 concert features a piece by Jason Haney, another contemporary Virginian, which explores the contrast and resemblance of the cello and harpsichord, the latter an instrument associated almost solely with the Baroque period. The Haney piece is followed by Respighi's 1914 "Il Tramonto" ("The Sunset"), which sets to music a romantically tragic poem written a hundred years earlier by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Intriguing groupings occur in all four concerts. The festival also includes master classes, presentations and panel discussions that are free and open to the public. These will be informal sessions for people who are interested in any aspect of the world of music, Wilson says. "It's a way to learn more about what's behind the product they hear," he says, "like pulling the curtains apart."

Springing from the festival's theme, "Expand the possibilities," the panels have titles like "The Expanded Role of Musicians in Community" and "Expanding the Possibilities in Music Education."

Longer and more replete with events than many chamber-music festivals around the country, the VCU festival, now in its second year, is also distinguished by its philosophy of education, its commitment to performing contemporary music and its emphasis on the musical programming rather than big-name performers, Wilson says. This is a shift from the festival's first year, when the widely known St. Lawrence String Quartet and flutist Eugenia Zuckerman dominated the programming and the musical selections were less adventuresome.

Though perhaps risky — Richmond likes its Beethoven, as the Symphony's concert schedule makes clear, and we fought over tickets to Yo-Yo Ma — this approach is right on target. Chamber music concerts are some of the most thrilling performances possible, but if we stick with only the familiar names and music, the bright thrill begins to fade and we're left sitting in the comfortable but dim glow of spluttering candles and heavy velvet. S

ChamberFest 2003 occurs in VCU's Singleton Center. Concerts are Feb. 1 at 8 p.m., Feb. 2 at 4 p.m., Feb. 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5-$15 per concert or $50 for the series. Call 828-6776.

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