COLCHESTER — The Craftsbury Chamber Players began their 52nd season, Wednesday at the Elley-Long Music Center, with a program style that reflected a longtime tradition — a light opening work, a more challenging one (meaning more modern), and closing with a reassuring masterpiece. And, in keeping with that tradition, all three were performed with skill, expertise and musical depth. (The programs are repeated Thursday at the Hardwick Town House.)
Beethoven’s Piano Trio in G Major, Op. 1, No. 2, certainly filled the bill as a reassuring masterpiece, but Wednesday’s performance was exciting. Particularly exciting in an introspective way was the slow movement, Largo, as performed by pianist Monica Ohuchi, violinist Katherine Winterstein and cellist Frances Rowell. Their warmth, rich sonorities and expressiveness were irresistible and deeply moving.
Add virtuosity to those qualities and you have the other three movements. Although the opening Adagio-Allegro had its scrappy moments, the wit of the Scherzo was delivered, and they romped through the final Presto. This was great music well-played.
The Crafstbury Chamber Players have been performing topnotch chamber music in the Northeast Kingdom since 1966, and later in the Burlington area, by professional instrumentalists looking for respite from the cutthroat New York music world. But they soon sprouted Vermont ties. In 1974, pianist Mary Anthony Cox married local farmer Morris Rowell, father of violinist Mary Rowell and cellist Frances Rowell. The Rowell sisters went on to Juilliard, professional careers, and returned as Players. Cox commuted weekly between East Craftsbury and New York, where she taught at Juilliard.
It was Cox, who died in January, that as director of the Players 1983-2014 came up with the successful progamming formula. I once described it in a Lowe Down column when Frances Rowell took over as music director: “(Cox) would lull us into comfort with a lovely introduction piece, slam us with a challenging but exciting contemporary work and then reassure us with a major traditional masterpiece. It was a formula, but it worked – and we were the better for it.”
Wednesday’s “contemporary work” wasn’t all that modern, but it was challenging. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote his Sonata for Viola, Op. 11, No. 4, in 1919, but it’s hardly easy listening. Three movements, an introduction fantasy and two sets of variations, imply form, but the whole feels more like a far-ranging fantasy. Warm lyrical sections are interspersed with knotty more rhythmic ones for a compelling yet unsettled feeling.
Ohuchi and her husband, violist (and respected composer) Kenji Bunch, certainly delivered both the lyrical beauty and driving virtuosity. Ohuchi played with beauty, clarity and drive while Bunch brought out the deep sounds of his viola in the expressive parts, and the needed clarity in the spicier ones. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was rewarding.
Lovely certainly describes the opening work, Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major, K. 423. Mary Rowell played with a light, spirited lyricism, complemented by Bunch’s warm countering. The two played comfortably with each other in this little masterpiece. The slow movement, Adagio, was exquisite.
Not all Craftsbury Chamber Players programs are this traditional, but most are this well played. In fact, the Players create real music adventures.