Buddha, Astronomers, Habaneras and Russian mischief

Long ago. musicians invented the notion of multiculturalism when they learned how to program interesting music for the concert hall. Today, outside of a museum or an international airport, one could not hope to encounter more varied composer personalities than in the splendid concert by the San Marco Chamber Music Society which I was privileged to hear this past Sunday in a free concert at St. Mark's Lutheran Church.

Performed by several members of the Jacksonville Symphony, augmented by two faculty from Jacksonville University, the program opened with The Two-Fold Path, an original composition by local composer, the Canadian-born, Peter Fraser MacDonald, featuring Eric Olson, principle oboist and his wife, Ellen Olson, violist. This elegant, meditative piece played so sensitively by the Olsons, blended the two voices, seamlessly, leading one to hear the piece as if sung by soprano and alto. It was almost too short. I wish it could have been played again, immediately.* Commissioned by the Olsons, it was one of many compositions they have commissioned by local composers, exposing audiences to fresh ideas from within the community. The Jacksonville music establishment often doesn't give credit, where credit is due, to its creative citizens.

(*I've been told by another local composer for this group, Ed Lein, that it can indeed be heard, again, on www.instantencore.com, where they have posted past performances at  http://instantencore.com/contributor/contributor.aspx?CId=5130723)

The  Oboe Concerto #1 in E flat, by German-English composer and astronomer of Uranus discovery fame, William Herschel (1738-1822), composed in 1759, followed, with Eric Olson and a six-person ensemble. Including harpsichord continuo with Scott Watkins, and bass, played, richly, by Patrick Bilanchone, the ensemble displayed a rigorously Baroque, full-bodied sound of a much bigger ensemble. This was partly due to the acoustic of the room which has a wooden ceiling, and wooden pews, but mostly due to the experienced virtuosity of the players, all graduates and affiliates of major conservatories and university music schools.

Olson always delivers such joyful playing, regardless of the demands of the music, whether contemporary or traditional. A supreme musician, he never fails to inspire audiences with his total involvement with the music, nor, is he ever daunted by the technicalities. His oboe sound comes the closest to the human voice of any I have heard.

He shifted from the divergent energies of the first two pieces to a seductive solo with Scott Watkins, pianist, in Maurice Ravel's Piece en Forme de Habanera, underscoring, once again, his ability to give vocal qualities to the oboe. His artistry is one of the reasons why the oboe is one of my favorite instruments: its clarity and unique sound always adds the brightest note to a symphonic composition, whether melancholic or, as with Beethoven, an optimistic metaphor for Nature.

The concert ended with the formidable Piano Quintet, Op. 57, by Dmitri Shostakovich, with Scott Watkins performing as pianist, in a brilliant and balanced manner with the ensemble, made up of Chris Chappell, First Violin, Marguerite Richardson, Second Violin, Ellen Olson, Viola, and Betsy Federman, Cello. (Watkins and Richardson are married, and both members of the Jacksonville University Faculty and have performed widely, in New York and abroad.)

Chappell, especially, understood and expressed the spiritual side of Shostakovich in the muted, delicate passages in the outer movements, leading the group, overall, in a true, ensemble performance.

Watkins, a pianist of extraordinary technique and sparkle, provided exciting counter dynamic to the "back and forth" of the rhythmically difficult Scherzo, which can only be characterized as much more than a musical "joke:" more a recounting of a Russian drunken orgy! He was cheerfully accompanied by the witty, slurred passages in the cello, by Federman, who is an exceptionally expressive virtuoso, as well.

To return to the contemplative temperament of the first two movements in the final two movements, the Intermezzo and Finale, the ensemble underscored the outrageousness of the Scherzo's placement, at the same time capturing the qualities of Shostakovich's Russian spirit which ranges from the spiritually transcendental to the uncontrollable, to the morbid, ending with the inevitable philosophizing about the "meaning of it all."

Well done! San Marco Chamber Music Society! More to come in February, March, and April. Always varied programming, exceptional guests and the always indispensable, Eric and Ellen Olson, greatly appreciated by an enthusiastic, knowledgable audience. An oasis of great music-making.

You may make a tax deductible contribution to the registered 501( c )( 3 )Society at: www.sanmarcochambermusic.org