Phillips Camerata chamber ensemble has impressive debut at museum

October 10, 2011

The Phillips Collection, one of the jewels among Washington’s crowd of museums, first opened its doors to the public 90 years ago. For 70 of those years, the museum has hosted a concert series. To honor both anniversaries, Caroline Mousset, the museum’s music director, has created a resident chamber music ensemble, the Phillips Camerata, which gave its maiden performance Sunday afternoon.

Resident ensembles have worked relatively well for other museums, like New York’s Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert and several such groups at the National Gallery of Art. They can relieve some of the pressure of programming a season-long concert series, although in its first season the Phillips Camerata will perform only twice at the museum.

Mousset serves as the Camerata’s artistic director, programming music for each concert and selecting from a flexible roster of 14 musicians, which she says may grow to as many as 20. The second half of the concert, devoted to Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B-Flat, Op. 34, was animated by the virtuosity and musicality of lead performer Ricardo Morales, who is about to leave his seat as principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra to take the same position at the New York Philharmonic.

Morales mastered the myriad technical challenges with refinement and panache, his mellow tone sonorous but never brash. He spun out a plaintive cantilena in the second-movement Fantasia, reducing the sound to a spectrally soft whisper at times. The finger work was scintillating and precise in the madcap menuetto of chattering and giggling motifs, and consummate daring and control made the closing pages of the last-movement Rondo a veritable thrill.

In one extended fugal passage without Morales, the accompanying string quartet sounded uninspired and as not unified as it had in the first half in Glenn Gould’s String Quartet, Op. 1. This is hardly a surprise for four musicians who until now have not played together regularly as a quartet, the two violinists especially grating against each other in terms of intonation. The work is a single movement of forgettable, knock-off Brahms in F Minor, overstaying its welcome after 10 of its 35 minutes. Gould’s love of Bach is heard in some dour fugues, but the only reason the piece is played at all is because of the dilettante authorship of the quirky Canadian pianist, who made his American debut at the Phillips Collection in 1955. Mercifully, Gould never followed the string quartet with an Op. 2.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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