Summerfest Chamber Music series opens first chapter of “Short Stories and Novelettes” in bold performance

We live and learn through stories, balancing the comfort of the familiar and the thrill of the new. Of our heroes, we strip away humanity to embellish their mythologies, confusing gossip and history as their stories are retold, refined and enforced.

The story, as told with and through music, is the theme for this year’s Summerfest Chamber Music series, now in its 29th season. “Short Stories and Novelettes,” with concerts every weekend in July, began this Saturday with a delightful performance in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s White Recital Hall in the Olson Performing Arts Center.

They weren’t too strict with the theme, opening with Michael Haydn’s perfectly pleasant, non-narrative, Divertimento in C, well along the lines of the predictable, though no less enjoyable. The performance began and ended strong, though the middle, slower movements lost momentum. These classical-era type pieces are satisfying to hear and to perform. Celeste Johnson, on oboe, was the leading voice with a wholesome timbre, prominent but not overpowering, combining smoothly with Matthew Sinno on viola, Richard Ryan on bass, and Charles Metz on harpsichord.

Unpredictable and cryptic, Giovanni Sollima’s “Short Stories” was a puzzle of a piece. Sollima, an Italian cello virtuoso and composer, brought together a series of melodic fragments in the five-movement work, offering cinematic scope in a post-minimalist sound world. This one was really fun, with unexpected diversions and sudden stops, repeated notes that lingered, pulsed and swelled, and an exciting performance from Michael Gordon on flute, Maria Crosby on cello, and Nina Ferrigno on piano.

Sollima offers a few clues, though. The first and fourth movements, called “Leonardo Rebus,” were based, presumably, on rare notation taken from picture+word riddles by Leonardo Da Vinci; “Biamonti 738” takes a fragment from Ludwig van Beethoven’s sketch book through a chaotic, cheeky journey with the intensity of a car chase; the Allegro Troppo quoted something familiar that I couldn’t place; and the last movement, “Scarlatti cut,” looked at a Baroque melody in a funhouse mirror.

They settled back down somewhat for C.P.E. Bach’s Trio Sonata in d minor, another fine example of the genre performed with energy, precision and nuanced communication. Here, Johnson and Gordon seamlessly transferred control between each other, locked into the continuo from Metz and Crosby.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet, Op. 39, was salvaged from the score for an ill-fated ballet, and you could hear the remnant of turns and leaps, grand gestures and mysterious tensions. Strong, gritty articulations and a bold attitude gave this work continuous drive. The timbres mixed and matched in the unorthodox instrumentation, rhythms and harmonies, Johnson paired with Jane Carl on clarinet and Sinno with Anne-Marie Brown on violin. Bassist Ryan captivated in his solo moments, and he encouraged the momentum in his accompanying role, too.

One note: Summerfest prides itself on presenting lesser-known works with a unique perspective at a high level of performance, covering multiple centuries and a variety of styles.

All well and good, but looking at the entire season, and previous seasons, Summerfest generally overlooks the least of the known and fails to include music by underrepresented voices, including women. Various women are discussed as muse, as inspiration, but we do not hear their own creative voices. It’s an unfortunate oversight, since this group’s high quality performances could offer their dedicated audiences a point of view that isn’t available in your average chamber music experience.

Whose stories, after all, are predictably retold century upon century and whose stories are missing from the narrative?

Reviewed Saturday July 6, 2019. Program repeats Sunday, July 7 3 p.m. at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

Summerfest continues July 13 & 14, 20 & 21, 27 & 28. Visit summerfestkc.org for more information.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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