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Chesapeake Chamber Festival to Play Mask-Free at Ebenezer

Written by Steve Parks

This year’s two-week classical series should take nothing away from musicians who performed in the 2021 Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival, which also marked the debut of the Ebenezer Theater as an exquisitely tasteful and tune-worthy concert hall.Just as we began to think COVID-19 might become a past-tense pandemic, its resurgence last summer – the first of several – forced such precautions as masking and spaced concert seating that cut the potential in-person audience in half. But now, it’s likely that some or many of the concerts will draw capacity or near-capacity attendance. Chesapeake Music, the resident company of the Joanne and Paul Prager Family Center for the Arts, of which Ebenezer is the crown jewel, has lined up a stellar cast of musicians performing a diverse and challenging program spanning centuries, including these early decades of the 21st.“Our festival theme is ‘Artful Dialogues,’ which allows the artists and audiences to connect through sound, song, and musical storytelling,” says Chesapeake Music’s co-artistic director Catherine Cho. “I feel that having a home at the Ebenezer Theater has inspired the artists, administration, and audiences to create a circle of trust and creative flow due to the beauty of the hall aesthetically and acoustically, and in the spirit and aura it exudes. The hall draws the listener in, on stage and off, and allows our imagination to have boundless possibilities.” Those possibilities are enhanced by a pair of stars in the operatic and orchestral realms performing on opening weekend with the festival’s impressive roster of mainstay musicians, among them Cho (violin/viola) and co-director Marcy Rosen (cello). 

Jennifer Johnson CanoMezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano arrives in Easton on the heels of her concert world premiere in The Hours, an opera based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Michael Cunningham and the Oscar-winning movie, both of the same title, inspired by a novel by Virginia Woolf who is, herself, a character in the plot. Pulitzer winner Ken Puts composed the music for The Hours, which will receive its first fully staged production by the Metropolitan Opera next season. Along with Cano, it stars Renee Fleming, winner of the National Medal of Arts and four Grammys, and Tony winner Kelli O’Hara. Meanwhile, Cano performs three Bach cantatas at the chamber festival starting June 10, a lesser-known melody by 19th-century French composer Ernest Chausson (June 11) and a set of Ravel art songs (June 12).Cano says, of her work ethic, “I don’t think my approach changes from one piece to another. With every project, be it part of the beloved canon of a new work, my responsibility remains the same – to serve the music and text and to communicate it.”Among the chamber musicians performing with her is Peggy Pearson, principal oboist with the Boston Philharmonic and longtime student of composer John Harbison, whose chamber piece, Six American Painters, originally written for flute, was re-scored for oboe at the request of his star student in 2003, one year after its concert debut. Six American Painters – George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Hans Hoffmann, and Richard Diebenkorn – is a highlight of the June 18 festival finale, performed along with Mozart’s Piano Trio in E-Major and Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-Minor, Opus 67. Both piano pieces are played by Ileva Jokubaviciute, who performs on Chesapeake Music’s Steinway grand all through the festival, including the Mozart trio with the co-artistic directors Rosen and Cho.Further Week 2 highlights include Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet in F-Sharp MinorOpus 10 on June 16. It will feature J. Lawrie Bloom, retired Chesapeake Music Festival co-founder and co-artistic director, performing with Rosen, who shared both titles with him, and Cho, his artistic directing successor. Jennifer Liu (violin) and Maiya Papach (viola) round out this distinguished quintet.The quintet is on the festival program at Bloom’s behest. “It’s a wonderful piece,” he said in a phone interview from his Oregon home, adding that “I’m not unconscious of the fact that it’s by an Anglo-African composer.” Born to a son of an African-American slave and an unmarried Englishwoman, Coleridge-Taylor remains best known for his cantatas, particularly Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. His three American tours were such a success that he was dubbed “the African Mahler.” But his legacy was cut short. In 1912, he died of pneumonia at age 37. “This magnificent work has been greatly overlooked,” Bloom said. So much so that the Chesapeake festival marks the first time the retired bass clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has played the Coleridge-Taylor quintet in concert. 

Colores TrioBloom also performs on June 17 in Edouard Destenay’s Trio in B-Minor for Oboe, Clarinet, and Piano, Opus 17, along with Pearson and the ubiquitous Jokubaviciute. Following intermission, Trio Colores makes a triumphant return to the scene of its double victory in the April 2 Chesapeake Chamber Music Competition, winning both the $10,000 Lerman gold prize and the audience choice award. Trio Colores is a percussion ensemble based in Switzerland specializing in reinterpreting classical music on serial drums, marimbas, and something called “musique le table,” which you probably never encountered unless you attended the competition finals. Several of the pieces in the trio’s repertoire are arranged by Luca Staffelbach, who performs with his percussion partners Matthias Kessler and Fabian Ziegler. Additional chamber works by such masters as Brahms, Dvorak, and Haydn as performed by ensembles including flutist Tara Helen O’Connor and string players Daniel Phillips, Peter Stumpf, and Carmit Zori complete an ambitious and wide-ranging festival program.Note: As of now, there are no mask mandates nor required proof of COVID vaccination to attend the chamber concerts. But Don Buxton, executive director of Chesapeake Music, advises ticket holders to check the festival website near the concert date for any health guideline updates. Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and editor now living in Easton. 

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