In the ether: Summerfest evokes many moods in “Atmospheres”

Musicians perform for an audience.

Summerfest musicians perform Sunday afternoon at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Credit: Andrew Schwartz/Veritography

Creating a certain mood—or journeying through an array of moods—is the intention of many an artistic venture, whether it be curating a concert, composing music, filming the next blockbuster movie, exploring a nascent creative urge, or just making a best-of-summer playlist. 

Summerfest, now in its 31st season (notwithstanding a season missed due to the pandemic), continues to offer high quality chamber music performances each July weekend. The cohort of musicians from the Kansas City Symphony and UMKC Conservatory, along with some talented friends, are capable of just about any style and complexity. This shows in the organization’s breadth of repertoire and, on any given concert, they present a mix of instrumentation and motivations.

For week two, called “Atmospheres,” Summerfest presented a set of works, each with a distinct intention in capturing a mood or situation. Saturday evening’s concert was held in White Recital Hall on the UMKC campus; Sunday’s afternoon show was at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

The series prides itself on presenting hidden gems and the concert’s opening work was a sterling example of that goal. Henriëtta Bosmans was a Dutch composer and highly regarded pianist in the early 20th century. But due to her Jewish heritage, she was oppressed during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, her career stymied, her life in jeopardy. She died in 1952 from cancer, potential only partially fulfilled.

This performance was the first time I’d heard of Bosmans; her String Quartet was an incredible introduction to the artist. Written in 1927, when Bosmans was in her early 30s, but already an established virtuoso, the three movement work indicated a sophisticated musical mind. 

The work was performed by four musicians from the Kansas City Symphony: Anne-Marie Brown and Tony DeMarco, violins; Jessica Nance, viola, and Alexander East, cello. The first movement used warm, dark tones, evoking a welcoming, comfortable togetherness. At first, the melody and tempo of the second movement had the feel of a lovely summertime walk, though contrasts in the voices indicated an underlying tension. The third movement featured a galloping rhythm, very assertive, and included plenty of unexpected moments.

Stacy Garrop’s 2015 “Bohemian Café,” in contrast, was deliberate in its inspiration, evoking that playful serendipity of Prague street musicians. In this case, the “street musicians” were series familiars Michael Gordon, flute; Celeste Johnson, oboe; Jane Carl, clarinet; Amanda Collins, horn; Joshua Hood, bassoon, and Richard Ryan, bass. 

With an attention-grabbing flourish, Garrop presented different scenes you might encounter while wandering around the city. There was the cafe scene of the title, boisterous, somewhat chaotic music as heard from a sidewalk seat; a sultry section, as though one had stumbled into a “locals only” type dive bar; and pleasant, wafting tones, evoking a calm, parklike setting. 

“The Light is the Same” was by far the most “atmospheric” of the evening’s offerings. Reena Esmail’s 2017 work for wind quintet (the same musicians as before, minus bass) had a floating quality, the individual voices rising and falling, twining and unfurling, at times reminiscent of embers in the dark, and at others a gentle current moving inexorably downriver. These contrasting energies (or my perspective of them) stemmed from two traditional Hindustani raags. Though one is considered “dark” in feeling and the other “light,” the notes in each are the same with one exception. And so, suggests Esmail, our differences aren’t so different after all: contrasts can combine. 

The concert’s concluding piece was from another lesser-known composer, Franz Berwald, a contemporary of Giacomo Rossini and Franz Schubert. While he didn’t achieve much attention as a composer in his lifetime, according to Summerfest’s Jane Carl, who presented the pre-concert introduction, he is considered Sweden’s first “symphonist” for his four completed symphonies, three of which premiered posthumously. 

His Grand Septet in Bb major, from 1828, certainly had symphonic aspirations, too, and seemed to represent Berwald’s artistic yearning. The work’s introduction had a sort of formal pretension, like a butler announcing dinner, but throughout the work there were clever ideas, interesting contrasts between string and wind voices, and outstanding melodic moments.  

Through eclectic programming and sensitive performances, Summerfest, once again, demonstrates that the series is essential summer listening for chamber music fans.

Reviewed Saturday, July 15. Summerfest presented “Atmospheres” at White Recital Hall at the UMKC Conservatory. For information about upcoming programs, visit summerfestkc.org

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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