Chiarina Chamber Players light up a sultry evening on Capitol Hill

Mon May 24, 2021 at 10:43 am

The Chiarina Chamber Players performed Sunday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

A rewarding series of chamber concerts is gaining a foothold on Capitol Hill. 

Founded in 2015, the Chiarina Chamber Players has been based at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church since 2016. During the pandemic, the group continued its season of mostly unexplored corners of the chamber music repertory via livestream. The last concert of this sixth season streamed on Sunday evening from St. Mark’s.

The resonant stone sanctuary at St. Mark’s is an ideal space for chamber music—in this case, three unusual works for piano trio. Violinist Domenic Salerni, of the Attacca Quartet, joined Chiarina’s co-artistic directors, cellist Carrie Bean Stute and pianist Efi Hackmey, for an hour-long program of pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, and American Paul Schoenfield.

Rachmaninoff composed Trio élégiaque No. 1 when he was only 18 years old and, as a work of juvenilia, it was published only after his death. This tribute to Tchaikovsky, one of the composer’s idols, is centered on a tragic melody heard in various forms throughout its long single movement. Salerni and Stute had turns at this tune, with Stute’s cello especially vibrant, but the score is essentially a showpiece for the pianist.

Hackmey mastered the work’s challenges with aplomb, but the performance was just as notable for how sensitively he accompanied his musical partners when they took the lead. He selected from the often large-scale figuration what was most important to emphasize, creating support and space, especially for Salerni in some of the high-flying passages. Hackmey also laid down an ideal foundation for the concluding funeral march in muffled, drum-like bass octaves.

The mystical tendencies of Pēteris Vasks draw comparisons to the holy minimalism of Arvo Pärt, but Vasks writes in a style that is less ascetic and more lush. He has described this piece for piano trio, Lonely Angel, as inspired by a vision he experienced, in which an “angel hovers over the world observing the state of the ravaged Earth with tears in his eyes, and yet an almost imperceptible, loving touch of his wings brings comfort and healing.”

Both string players gave focused intensity to Vasks’ long melodic lines, especially Salerni, whose line was often stretched to the top  of the violin range. He responded to these demands with a searing but clean sound, flawless in intonation even as he rose into the instrumental ionosphere. Hackmey made himself mostly evanescent at the piano, producing whirring clouds of harmony from the near-constant tremolo chords.

The program ended with something much more lighthearted and fun, Café Music, completed in 1987 by the Detroit-born composer Paul Schoenfield. It is a tribute to the flexible, entertaining variety of music required of a cocktail pianist, reconceived as a piano trio in traditional classical forms. Schoenfield, now on the faculty at the University of Michigan, said in an interview that the idea came to him after he sat in for a pianist at a restaurant in Minneapolis.

The piece provided an ideal send-off into the summer, with effervescent melodic writing and jazz-inspired harmonic twists. The first movement, a sonata form, featured a ragtime first theme, set off in a contrapuntal development that built delightfully to its recapitulation. Some metric disruptions and a few Bartók pizzicati were among the modernist touches Schoenfield used playfully.

The middle movement evoked film music with hints of sugary romanticism, opening with a smoky piano interlude set at a leisurely pace by Hackmey. A turn toward the minor brought listeners back full circle to the moody Rachmaninoff trio that opened the concert, with incandescent melodic turns by both Salerni and Stute. In a maudlin arch of the eyebrow, Schoenfield even worked in a lovely, sad Chassidic nigun, or religious melody.

All three players tore into the finale, a Chaplinesque escapade that veered crazily among stylistic allusions, here a Prokofiev toccata and there a madcap boogie-woogie. Hackmey anchored the piece at the keyboard, especially as the coda accelerated toward a wild, white-knuckled finish. Like anxious thoroughbreds, Salerni and Stute likewise raced toward the finish line for a thrilling conclusion.

Chiarina Chamber Players will announce their 2021-22 season later this summer.

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