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Missouri Chamber Music Festival gets off to a strong start

Missouri Chamber Music Festival gets off to a strong start

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The fledgling Missouri Chamber Music Festival took wing at its inaugural concert Thursday at First Congregational Church of Webster Groves.

It takes guts as well as vision to organize a new event of this kind, particularly in a slow economy. But founders Scott Andrews, principal clarinet of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and his wife, pianist Nina Ferrigno, clearly have both, overcoming logistical and financial hurdles, and tempting potential audience members with the intimate miracles of chamber music.

Thursday's performance should have made some new converts to the cause.

The 5 p.m. concert ran just over an hour, with five artists in works by four very different composers. All of it was performed with impressively high levels of technical skill and musical spirit.

The opener was "Three Madrigals" for Violin and Viola by Bohislav Martinu (1890-1959), played by the well-matched Maria Schleuning on violin and Amadi Azikiwe on viola. "Madrigals" is sometimes prickly, sometimes lyrical, and filled with complex rhythmic figures and the folk harmonies of Martinu's native Bohemia. As performed by Schleuning and Azikiwe, it was always engaging.

Azikiwe is a find, a violist with a distinctive, muscular sound. He and Schleuning were well-matched and very much in sync.

Andrews interviewed composer-in-residence Derek Bermel before the concert, sharing a single persnickety microphone, and then performed in Bermel's "Mulatash Stomp," along with Schleuning and Ferrigno. Intended as an evocation of "a wild, all-night Hungarian party," "Mulatash" is playful and good eclectic fun.

Performances of art song are rare in St. Louis. That made soprano Ashley Emerson Marie, in "The Daughter of the Regiment" at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, a particularly welcome addition to the Festival.

She and Ferrigno first offered the "Quatre Chansons de Jeunesse (Four Songs of Youth)," by Claude Debussy with texts by Paul Verlaine. Built mostly around the familiar characters of commedia dell'arte, the exquisite songs conceal a melancholy beneath the surface.

The concert's finale was Franz Schubert's "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock)," which creates a world of meaning in its few minutes. Andrews, Ferrigno and Emerson all performed sumptuously.

Emerson, it comes as no surprise, can draw listeners into the miniature world of a song as well as she does an opera, and her expressive artistry held the audience spellbound. Her clear, silvery tone is beautiful, particularly in the upper ranges. If it's a little lacking at the lower end, the way she spun out lyrical phrases more than made up for it.

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