All through the month of December, undeterred by the distractions of the political and holiday mega scenes, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s hardworking staff persevered in their labors, conscientiously satisfying Philadelphia’s need for a plentiful supply of high quality chamber music. I only attended one of the 10 concerts PCMS presented last month, but that event deserves some belated attention.
The concert featuring the McGill brothers and pianist Michael McHale was a prime example of a concert with an extra-musical quality that can’t be duplicated on a recording. One of the evening’s principal pleasures was the sight of three highly skilled young performers playing like they really liked working together.
Demarre and Anthony McGill are two of the Curtis Institute’s most successful alumni. They both hold principal positions with major orchestras, and they’re both developing thriving careers as chamber musicians and soloists. Demarre is the principal flute of the Dallas Symphony; Anthony is the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic and former principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera. They’ve been playing together since they were children, and Michael McHale collaborated with them as if he was another member of the family, even though he hails from Ireland, and they grew up in Chicago.
The item that summed up the musical appeal of the concert was McHale’s arrangement of a Rachmaninoff Vocalise. A vocalise is a wordless vocal piece. A great vocalise requires a singer who can create a flawless line with the right measure of expressiveness. The instrumental arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece make the same demands and you could hear that measured, properly appropriate expressiveness in all the other pieces on the program. The music always seemed to be saying something, with shadings most of us can’t put into words.
The trio put together a well-constructed program with solos for both wind instruments and big moments for everybody. In most of the pieces the piano was a full partner, not just a supporting accompanist.
A need for speed
Poulenc’s evocations of 20th-century urban life opened both halves of the program, with Demarre McGill playing the French composer’s 1956 flute sonata and Anthony playing his 1963 clarinet solo. An arrangement of Shostakovich’s Four Waltzes proved, once again, that Shostakovich understood all the moods of the waltz, even if he was trapped in Stalinist Russia.
The two pieces by living American composers were both winners. Paul Schoenfield’s 1994 Sonatina is usually described as “zesty,” and it does include a Charleston and a jig. But it has its share of moodier moments in addition to sections that make you wonder how three people could possibly collaborate at the speed they’re hitting.
The newest piece on the program was an arrangement of a 2014 trio for piano, violin, and cello. Chris Rogerson’s A Fish Will Rise takes its title from a sentence in the trout fishing classic, A River Runs Through It. It’s essentially a stream of bright music interrupted by flashes of drama. It evokes the scene suggested by the title and it does so with music that suggests its young composer has a name worth remembering.