By Lawrence Budmen

The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival enlivens the summer -traditionally the off season for music in South Florida - with diverse programs, arresting repertoire, and some of the area’s most gifted musicians. The Festivals performs in three venues. On July 9 the intimate Crest Theater in Delray Beach proved to be a gem – a great chamber music venue with acoustics that allow for both clarity of detail and warm, sumptuous sonorities. While the opening concert offered an uneven series of performances, the opening and closing scores proved to be real winners. 

Flutist Karen Dixon is well remembered for her splendid playing in the early incarnation of the New World Symphony. Today she is principal flutist of the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra. Many an operatic performance has been enlivened by the beautiful tonal hues of her flute solos. Dixon is one of the founders and leading lights of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival which is now in its 15th season. 

She opened the program with a lovely performance of Mozart’s Quartet in A Major for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello, K.298. Her tone was pure, her intonation firm and true. Dixon captured the classical elegance of this 1777 score. Violist Elizabeth Reder was a standout among Dixon’s colleagues. Her darkly burnished sound, impressive tonal compass, and superb musicality riveted attention. Violinist Mei Mei Luo and cellist Christopher Glansdorp made fine ensemble contributions. Dixon was particularly impressive in the opening Andantino with graceful, finely crafted phrasing that made the music’s ebb and flow seem totally natural. She brought exquisite classical style to the Menuetto and finesse to the concluding Rondo. Despite Mozart’s claim that he disliked the flute, his writing for that instrument was always wonderful. This delightful Quartet was no exception.

Like the flute work, Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat Major, K.375 was played in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The score is usually heard in Mozart’s revised version for wind octet. At this concert Mozart’s original version for sextet was performed. With the exception of French horn player Jessica Valeri who was exceptional, the wind playing was often tentative. Tempos were over deliberate. This was an example of powdered wigged Mozart, lacking in vigor, variety, or charm. Usually this score is performed with a conductor to shape the contours of the music making. That was definitely needed in this traversal. 

The concert concluded with Dimitri Shostakovich’s Quintet in G Minor for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello – a nod to the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Shostakovich was unquestionably the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century. His powerful, deeply personal scores owe much to Mahler; yet reinvent music’s power to reflect the creator’s inner most hopes and agonies. The Piano Quintet dates from 1940 and was commissioned by the Beethoven Quartet, the group that premiered all of the composer’s remarkable string quartets. (Shostakovich was the pianist at the work’s premiere.)

This rarely heard score is superb, clearly the work of a genius. Shostakovich was a great admirer of the masterful scores of Johann Sebastian Bach. The Quartet opens with a Prelude and Fugue in tribute to that master. Despite the music’s neo-Baroque underpinnings, the second movement Fugue is deeply emotional and expressive. Shostakovich’s sardonic wit permeates the wildly eccentric Scherzo. In many ways the heart of the work is the powerfully searing Intermezzo – music that belies its innocuous title. A surprising neo-classical strain characterizes the Finale – elegantly sculpted, graciously written for the instrumentalists. The score concludes quietly. Is the coda is a witty commentary or an unanswered question? In any case, the entire work brims with the ingenuity, drama, and energy that is quintessential Shostakovich.

Pianist Lisa Leonard was an impressive musical protagonist. Leonard is a faculty member at the Lynn University Conservatory of Music in Boca Raton. She offered bravura playing of the most exhilarating variety. Her splendid pianistic command and strongly felt, emotionally intense music making signified artistry of the highest order. The incisive playing of violinist Dina Kostic set the music in irrepressible motion. Again Reder played with passionate intensity and beauty of utterance. With Mei Mei Luo and Christopher Glansdorp providing fiery support, the performance was simply terrific. Here was chamber music in its purist form – perfect for a warm Sunday afternoon. Kudos to these gifted artist-impresarios!

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