Chamber Music Monterey Bay — Inscape: A Mixed Ensemble

As the air turns crisp and the leaves rustle as they fall to the sidewalk, I tend to notice music around me more often. Hardly a minute goes by in public that music is not offered for your listening pleasure. Our ears are full. Modern music from the 20th and 21st Century is challenging at times. Modern life is challenging at times. This listener does not begrudge a Classical Music fan for taking a “bye” on a concert when life has just been too challenging. Life happens. Music happens. Sometimes one just wants the music to speak to one’s heart. No brain stretching harmonies, no new instruments, no clash of instrumental techniques; just music to stir the ear and the mind and of course, the heart. No in-depth conversations of differences, just the chance to hear old friends. When the promotional Press Release mentions that a group “is pushing the boundaries of classical music” one may need to pause and reframe your ears and mind before entering the concert hall. This listener has often been in that “just give me easy listening” frame of mind. Last night, I was ready for some new experiences; a concert of all modern stuff.

 Chamber Music Monterey Bay mentions on its website that its mission is to “preserve the tradition” and to “explore creatively the evolution” of live chamber music performance. With its first concert of the 2019-2020 season, CMMB preserved the tradition of excellence by inviting the Julliard String Quartet to the stage at the Sunset Cultural Center in Carmel, CA. For the second concert of the season the audience was invited to listen to Inscape, a Mixed Ensemble. Taking the stage Saturday, November 23, 2019 were 6 members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra. They did push the boundaries of classical music. The music they performed, while drawn from 20th and 21st Century Chamber, is solidly considered classical in many music circles. This live performance gave us an excellent example of evolving musical experiences. 

Artistic Director, Evan Ross Solomon, programmed music for violin, viola, cello, bass, oboe, and clarinet. That’s it — just five compositions by five different composers with no more than five instruments on stage at any one time. This was chamber music defined, chamber music to be enjoyed by any who enter, and chamber music that pushes the boundaries. There are concerts of new music that can intimidate a listener, but figuring out what your listener may know, what your listener may enjoy discovering, and what your listener will just not like is the job of an Artistic Director. For Saturday’s concert, I feel Dr. Solomon completed that task well.

The concert opened with the ensemble playing Quartet for Clarinet and String Trio by Krzysztof Penderecki. Providing the string parts were violinist Anne Donaldson, violist Megan Yanik and cellist Danielle Cho. Witnessing chamber music in a live performance can be fun and thrilling. I was very taken by the caliber of musicianship Dr. Solomon displayed on clarinet. He chose to use two instruments that looked identical from my seat. I almost missed a wonderful violin solo because my mind wandered while observing how the composer was utilizing the register of each individual instrument. Each of the string players executed the demanding music with flair and competency. The next piece interested me in particular. As a young organ student, I was expected to learn a string instrument, a wind instrument, and percussion instruments. Viola was my choice as I found it easy to read the C Clef. Rebecca Clarke wrote many works for viola. We heard Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for clarinet and viola in this concert. I enjoyed the obvious rapport between Dr. Solomon and Dr. Yanik’s viola playing, which enhanced the magic of this composition. Rounding out the first half of the concert Bethany Slater joined the strings for Phantasy Op. 2 for oboe, violin, viola and cello by Benjamin Britten. To me, this piece was the most accessible to those exploring classical music written in the 20th and 21st Century. The quintessential Britten sound came alive for me, and I marveled at how seamlessly the musicians played despite the changing roster of instruments. But then, that’s what makes Chamber Music exciting!

The two pieces presented in the second half of the concert are closely related. True to the mission of Inscape, the musicians introduced us to Sean Shepherd through his composition Quintet for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and bass. In the program notes provided by the composer, Mr. Shepherd wrote about his choice of instrumentation fondly referred to as the “Prokofiev Quintet” and writing for the contrabass. I enjoyed watching Michael Rittling play his instrument and adding to the excellence of this ensemble. The titles given to the movements — “Strictly lazy; Insistent, nasal, snarling, relentless” — might make this music appealing to young people, and I hope it would entice them to hear more Chamber Music. 

To complete the evening’s program, we were treated to Quintet in G Minor Op. 39 for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola and Bass by Sergei Prokofiev. Despite the origin for this piece beginning with a commission to provide music for a “circus ballet,” this work is part of established chamber ensemble repertoire. It has inspired musicians and composers to create fantastic music. Inscape did not disappoint. Each of the musicians displayed a confident grasp of their individual part, the synergy of a seasoned performer and the joy and satisfaction they feel while bringing the notes on the page to life. 

It was announced that the ensemble spent time working with local young musicians in a workshop and short concert. I hope each of the professionals spoke about their choice of instrument, how they approach a new composition that has never been recorded, and how they rehearse. I found this concert of contemporary music refreshing and enjoyable. I seldom look for recordings of specific pieces by specific performers, but if Inscape does record any of these compositions, or works by Sean Shepherd, I will be tempted to purchase them.

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