Saturday, July 19, 2008

Eastern Music Festival

The Eastern Music Festival, a fine summer institution based in Greensboro, N.C., sent up a coterie of piano students to play at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Tuesday evening. A parade of 10 teenage talents offered short works ranging from Bach to Rachmaninoff.

All acquitted themselves well, and the average ability level was quite high. While the credit would go mainly to the students and their teachers during the regular school year, it speaks well of the EMF that it attracts such talent, considering the many other festivals and workshops across the country from which a gifted young artist might choose.

The Millennium Stage is a priceless resource for Washingtonians (and the world, through its live webcasts), but straight classical performances are at a real disadvantage there. Everything must be electronically amplified because of dreadful acoustics and ambient noise in the foyer, and the Steinway is not full-size.

Of the 10, only Lucas Furtado seemed to really grasp the limitations against which he labored, producing a full spectrum of sound in his Rachmaninoff prelude. The others seemed to be playing what was in their heads from the practice room, though there were certainly some special moments: Chien-Lin Lu's expressive counterpoint in a Mozart sonata, Karla Huber's mature vision in her Rachmaninoff prelude and Christopher Goodpasture's sparkling, highly musical rendition of the toccata from Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin." These and others represented the EMF in the best possible light.

-- Robert Battey

BannerArts Trio

Two pieces with curious histories plus one farewell to a long musical career added up to a multifaceted debut for the newly formed BannerArts Trio at the Ratner Museum in Bethesda on Tuesday night.

Violinist Judith Spokes and cellist David Cho opened with a duo originally written for clarinet and bassoon and long thought to be by Beethoven, but whose provenance is now uncertain. The work's balanced, pleasantly Mozartean sound fit well in the museum's echo-prone but intimate venue.

The mood changed abruptly as pianist Carl Banner joined the string players for Fauré's Piano Trio. Written in 1923, after the composer became deaf, this work is not so much a throwback to the 19th century as a piece that never left it. Filled with Brahmsian lyricism, it is a soulful goodbye to a lengthy career at its ebb: Fauré wrote only one more work, his String Quartet.

The BannerArts Trio has not yet achieved relaxed balance: The piano, its lid fully open, often overwhelmed the strings, especially the cello. Still, the work was played with flowing warmth.

So was Brahms's First Piano Trio -- which is also his last. He wrote it at age 21, then thoroughly remade it 35 years later, after having composed two others. From the grand first movement through the rollicking scherzo, to the passionate finale, the performers were involved and intense. But the piano, played with near-constant pedal, often subsumed the other instruments. Subtleties of interplay will, one hopes, develop in this group over time.

-- Mark J. Estren

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