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Library concert features diverse menu of music

By Ben Nyberg

One of the most welcome recent additions to the local classical music scene has been the KSU Library chamber music series, which each year mounts three recitals in the cozy, listener friendly environment of the library’s fifth-floor Hemisphere Room. 

This season’s second concert, presented last Friday evening to a nearly full-house audience, could well have been sub-titled “Tod Kerstetter and Friends.” The program featured a wonderfully diverse menu of selections from Louis Cahuzac, Kirke Mechem, Eric Dolphy, Darius Milhaud, and Aaron Copland. The 2012-2013 series ends on April 19 with a recital by baritone Chris Thompson and pianist Steven Spooner.

Friday’s program opened with Cahuzac’s virtuosic showpiece for clarinet and piano, “Cantilene.” Pianist Amanda Arrington managed her supportive role with appropriate discretion, leaving the star-turn exhibition entirely to clarinetist Kerstetter, who certainly made the most of his every opportunity to demonstrate both a lightning technical agility and the even more demanding challenge of revealing the subtle shapes and shades of tonal character.

A brief song cycle titled To An Absent Love by Wichita-born (1925) composer Mechem, set to four poems and scored for voice, clarinet, horn, and piano, was sung with overpowering intensity and conviction (almost more than our limited space could contain!) by soprano Amy Rosine. Showing themselves to be the superior chamber musicians they are, pianist Arrington, hornist Jacqueline Fassler-Kerstetter, and clarinetist Kerstetter each played his/her assigned role in the ensemble so as to lend collaborative vitality and heft to the overall texture of the whole while never drawing attention away from the message of the vocal line.

A San Francisco Chronicle critic’s impression of the cycle back in 1995 was that while “sweet-toned,” it was “unadventurous.” To my ears it sounded like the work of a composer more concerned about doing full musical justice to the poems’ texts than with worrying about whether the musical language employed would strike listeners as either “modern” or “conservative.” Given how much noisy garbage has been generated by those overeager to prove themselves au courant with the latest compositional fad, I found Mechem’s determination to serve his subject matter, regardless of establishment censure, commendable.

When it comes to jazz, I must confess to an ignorance vast and deep. It’s just not a musical mode I’ve devoted the study time needed to make intelligent comments. But even I have heard of Eric Dolphy, and even I can admire the marvel of his Improvisation on “God Bless the Child.”  The creative joy, humor and imaginative fertility of the piece effervesce with an appeal that simply refuses to be resisted. Like Dolphy, Kerstetter is master of more than one instrument, and his command of the bass clarinet enabled him to pay worthy homage to Dolphy’s genius as both composer and performer.

Milhaud’s op. 351 Duo Concertante for clarinet and piano is playfully arch and delightfully droll. When I hear Berlioz or Saint-Saens I don’t automatically think how French they sound, but Milhaud tells me straight out that he is of the Gallic nation and will address me in none but his native tongue. He may have lost his heart to American blues and jazz, but when he feeds it into his own work it’s always with a French twist.

The program’s finale teamed Kerstetter with Arrington (piano reduction by the composer, which only made one yearn for the whole orchestra) in an eloquent reading of Copland’s beautiful Concerto for Clarinet.  

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