By Lawrence Budmen

If the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival’s opening program was a musically engaging, likeable effort, the second concert was really special. A perfect combination of rarely heard repertoire and gifted artists filled the resonant Crest Theater in Delray Beach with irresistible vibrations. 

A trip down the byways of music can be illuminating. Worthy composers and scores that have been forgotten in the vestiges of history can enchant the ear. Besides, the byways can cast new light on the highways. In this case, the music of Louis Spohr (1784-1859) was a natural corollary to the scores of such towering giants as Beethoven and Chopin. 

Spohr was a contemporary and friend of Beethoven. A prolific composer of symphonies, chamber music, and operas, Spohr’s music stylistically straddles the classical and romantic eras. His Quintet in C Minor, Op.52 is replete with elegant pianistic filigree from the creative oeuvre of Chopin. Yet Chopin was only ten years old when Spohr composed this score. Spohr was a forgotten path breaker who forged a new school of romantic keyboard writing. The four movements of the Quintet are filled with charming melodies and graceful writing for four wind instruments. 

Pianist Lisa Leonard is a local treasure. Her technique is impeccable. Moreover Leonard is a pianist in the grand romantic tradition. She brings rhapsodic hues, commanding virtuosity, and fervent musical conviction to every bar she plays. In Spohr’s Quintet, Leonard essayed the music’s elaborate romantic embellishments with sizzling verve and fiery pyrotechnical mastery. The wind quartet of flutist Karen Dixon, clarinetist Michael Forte, bassoonist Michael Ellert, and French horn player Jessica Valeri played with sparkling tone and impeccable musicality. Valeri’s horn solo was particularly sonorous and warmly phrased. 

Camille Saint-Saens’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op.65 is a fizzy, melodic salon piece. It is also a virtuosic romp for both the trumpet and piano which are practically soloists in the ensemble. The high flying trumpet line was in the spectacular hands of Marc Reese, best known for his work with the stunning Empire Brass. Reese’s clarion tone and flexibility were riveting. The impressive string contingent of violinists Mei Mei Luo and Dina Kostic, violist Rene Reder, cellist Christopher Glansdorp, and double bassist Jason Lindsay played with silky tone, impressive instrumental precision, and wonderful transparency of texture. Leonard’s pianism displayed a scintillating palette of colors. She whizzed through this charming salute a France with élan. 

Sir William Walton’s lively Façade, a setting of Dame Edith Sitwell’s witty, satirical poetry, was the perfect musical martini to conclude this vivacious musicale. This early Walton score combines dance rhythms (i.e. waltz, foxtrot, polka) with Sitwell’s rhythmic word games – a veritable collection of humorous barbs at early 20th century British aristocracy (even the King is not sparred). This engaging work was once in vogue but is rarely played today. The Palm Beach Chamber Festival musicians offered the piece in its original version for six piece ensemble and two narrators. Mark Aliapoulios (a concert and operatic baritone) delivered Sitwell’s rapid fire verbal gymnastics with marvelous enunciation and crisp rhythm. Sonia Santiago (a mezzo-soprano who has performed numerous roles with Palm Beach Opera) recited in a deep, richly sensual vocal manner. Dixon, Forte, Reese, and Glansdorp were joined by alto saxophonist Paul Magersuppe and percussionist Shannon Wood for a vigorous, state of the art traversal of this musical-poetic romp. Here was an afternoon of sheer musical enchantment.

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