June Chamber Series at Kreeger Museum opens with 2 hours of ear-pleasing music

June 16, 2013

Art museums aren’t always ideal places to hear music — the echoey galleries, folding chairs and awkward sight lines can make concerts a bit of a trial. But the small (and often overlooked) Kreeger Museum on Foxhall Road is a striking exception to the rule. Not only does its music room have some of the best acoustics in town, but the whole museum — a modernist masterpiece designed by Philip Johnson in 1963 — has an almost musical sense of flow and movement to it, with soaring ceilings and expanses of glass that open onto sculpture gardens awash in Henry Moore’s voluptuously abstract nudes.

A perfect setting, in other words, for a summer music festival, and on Friday night, the museum’s annual June Chamber Series opened with a concert by the American Chamber Players that seemed designed to please — two hours of lushly melodic and mostly romantic-era music, with nary a dissonance to irk the tender ear. “Not all great music has to be tragic,” Miles Hoffman, the ensemble’s leader and violist, assured the audience. “If it makes you smile, that’s okay!”

That’s not a bad philosophy for a summer evening, and Hoffman delivered as promised. The program opened with the Serenade in C for string trio by the Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi, a warm, glowing and almost nostalgic work from 1902 — a sort of last gasp of romanticism as the angst-ridden 20th century got underway. It’s an elegant piece with something for everyone, from the lush romanza to the spirited, Hungarian-flavored finale, and even the darting little scherzo dished out one ravishing melody after another. The players — violinist Joanna Maurer, cellist Stephen Balderston and Hoffman on viola — turned in a fine performance, perhaps more dry than swooning, but none the worse for that.

The flutist Sara Stern (with Anna Stoytcheva at the piano) then took the stage for Prokofiev’s astonishing Sonata in D for flute and piano. Written in the depths of World War II, it’s a songlike and surprisingly optimistic work, with little of the searing anguish of the composer’s wartime Violin Sonata No. 1 (which Maurer played so magnificently at last summer’s Kreeger series). But it’s hardly a pleasant little diversion — to these ears, there’s a kind of bittersweet anger driving the work, and it sounds best when played with a snarl inside the smiles, a loaded gun behind the exuberant melodies. Stern brought a thoughtful and lyrical depth to the sonata, but she seemed to pull her punches a bit, and her playing never quite erupted into the full-throated, triumphal ecstasy the work demands.

Two works from the early 19th century rounded out the evening, the entertaining Duo in C for violin and viola by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, and a trio by Carl Maria von Weber. Hoffmeister is better known as a publisher than as a composer, but his music has an easy, likable charm to it, and the duo gave Maurer and Hoffman (who has an easy, likable charm himself) an opportunity to play just for the fun of it, which they clearly did.

Weber hasn’t gotten much respect from history, remembered for a couple of not-bad operas but otherwise largely ignored. That may be a mistake; Stravinsky, for one, thought his music had genius, and it’s official policy at our house not to argue with Stravinsky. It’s even harder to argue with the drop-dead beauty of Weber’s Trio in G Minor for flute, cello and piano, a work of striking melodic inventiveness and subtle drama, which received a beautifully balanced and sonorous performance, Stern’s quicksilver flute tones glinting against the dark rich currents of Balderston’s cello. A deeply satisfying work, and a fitting close to the evening.

The Kreeger series continues this week, with performances on Tuesday and Friday of more summery music from Schubert, Mozart, Barber, Brahms and others, performed by the American Chamber Players, a fine ensemble well worth hearing.

style@washpost.com

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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