Thank but no thanks to the COVID pandemic, the 10th biennial of the International Chesapeake Chamber Music Competition enjoyed its first in-person concert finals in more than two years at downtown Easton’s Ebenezer Theater with five ensembles vying for the $10,000 Lerman Gold Prize and a concert appearance in June’s Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival.
Due to severe travel and visa restrictions, not to mention the shutdown of nearly all indoor concert venues, the ninth biennial was a virtual livestream event. All of which made Saturday’s matinee and evening competition such a celebratory occasion. A sellout live audience plus at-home livestream spectators got to vote for their favorite contestants after five 45-minute performances. Many in attendance stuck around for the finalist judges’ verdict in awarding the gold and silver prizes.
While some chamber music competitions feature string quartets only, Chesapeake Music requires diversity in performance repertoire and musical instruments. Trio Colores, a percussion-only chamber ensemble based in Zurich, Switzerland, won both the Gold and Audience Choice awards, the latter adding $500 to their $10,000 grand prize. Abeo Quartet, a string ensemble based at the University of Delaware in Newark, earned the $5,000 silver award.
We met with all 19 musicians of the five-chamber groups at a Sunday brunch, April 3, at a Bellevue estate overlooking the Tred Avon and Oxford across the river. Some of the contestants enjoyed an extended weekend stay with host families. Others stayed as guests with Easton families.
Lerman Gold Prize and Audience Choice Award–Trio Colores (Percussion): Fabian Ziegler, Matthias Kessler, and Luca Staffelbach
As Don Buxton, chairman of Chesapeake Music and host of the finals concert, said while re-introducing the contestants before audience voting took place and before the judges announced the gold and silver winners, Trio Colores alone managed to “fill the stage.” A table accommodating three musicians dominated center downstage for the first piece in their performance. Six hands scraped across and pounded on tablets, punctuated by rhythmic clapping in four movements of Musique de Table by Thierry de Mey. Each new movement was indicated by a ceremonially timed turning of pages in a collective gesture that borrowed from performance art techniques. In our subsequent interview, Ziegler said they usually perform this piece with a microphone at the table to better project the percussion throughout the concert hall.
From there, the trio moved seamlessly to three marimbas that dominated the upstage geography. For those not familiar with marimbas, think large-scale xylophones producing everything from dainty teardrop notes to more assertive mallet-pounding, bringing an easily recognizable melodic rhythm to such classical staples as Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (four movements’ worth) to Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, both arranged by trio member Staffelbach. Folding the marimbas to make room for spreading their drum assemblage, the trio worked up a sweat attacking a bass drum ringed by bongos and high-pitched metallic Chinese opera instruments to Serbian composer Nebojsa Jovan Zivkivic’s Trio per Uno, Part I.
Of the marimba pieces, Staffelbach says, “I do arrangements of music that we like.” Added Fabian, “We try to do our version of a piece but not get too far from the original.”
It may well be that the trio’s originality moved the judges to award them the Lerman prize.
Silver Prize–Abeo Quartet (Strings): Njioma Grevious, Rebecca Benjamin, James Kang, and Brian Gadbow
For the graduate string quartet of Delaware, the Chesapeake was their second competition together, having made the finals of the 2021 Young Artists Competition in New York. Like each of the three string quartets competing in Easton, their selections reflected current world events. “We always draw inspiration from what is going on around us,” cellist Gadbow said. “It’s our way of connecting with the audience and processing what is happening for ourselves.”
Of the pandemic part of the equation, Grevious, one of Abeo’s two violinists, said, “The music is very meaningful for all of us. As a diverse group, we want to play pieces by underrepresented composers.” Their performance of Billy Childs’ White Room was particularly moving, reflecting anxiety from the start with short and searing strokes signifying pain, followed by a screaming violin solo morphing into a full quartet staccato alarm and a tremulous undercurrent of fear for a loved one’s survival.
They capped their set, which included string quartets by Haydn and Mendelssohn, with Shostakovich’s No. 3, mastering its dramatically abrupt endings and an equally dramatic allegro with a torrid opening that takes a solo viola turn toward an intense sense of urgency.
Aero Quartet (brass): Salvador Flores, Walt Puyear, Matthew Koester, Brian Kachur
Matthew Koester politely corrected our designation of Aero’s all-sax instrumentation as “brass.” “Saxophones can incorporate some of the woodwind and reed repertoire,” he said. “So they’re not just brass” – despite the bright and shiny sparkle of their instruments. Their performance proved his point as the sax quartet – Flores on soprano sax, Puyear on alto, Koester on tenor and Kochur on baritone – embraced all the complexity of Robert Schumann’s “Bouquet” and the war-torn foreboding of Guillermo Lago’s Ciudades: Sarajevo and Addis Abbado.
Their University of Michigan quartet is “custom-made,” said Kochur. “Others we played in were preassigned by faculty.”
The Aeros, gold medalists in the 2021 Fischoff Chamber Music virtual competition, plan to record an album this summer or fall.
Terra String Quartet: Amelia Dietrich, Harriet Langley, Ramon Carrero Martinez, and Geirthrudur Gudmundsdottir
The New York-based foursome brought to the competition sharply contrasting classical compositions they’ve been working on for two years leading up to this, their first chamber competition as a group. All four movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 3 cover the classical realm like a blanket. Adding Britton’s Quartet No. 2 “shows the diversity of what we can do,” said cellist Gudmundsdottir.
Each of them, as well as other contestant groups, praised the feedback they received from Chesapeake judges after the winners were announced. In previous competitions as solo performers, “We’d get just cursory remarks, like ‘too slow’ or ‘too soft,’ ” recalled Dietrich, one of Terra’s two violinists. “Here, the judges spent 25 minutes to a half-hour with us.”
Elless Quartet (Strings): Emera Gurath, Megan Lin, Marcus Stevensen, and Cecelia Swanson
“We’re all still in school” at the Cleveland Institute of Music, violist Stevensen noted. “We didn’t make it to the finals last time we entered. So we feel like winners this time.”
Citing the renowned Cleveland Orchestra, cellist Swanson said, “Cleveland has its own sound,” adding that many of the orchestra’s musicians are on their school’s faculty. “We wanted to bring that sound here with us.” To that end, they played a challenging program ranging from the finale of Haydn’s String Quartet No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 to Jesse Montgomery’s Strum, showing off their pizzicato skills.
“We all see chamber music as a major part of our future,” says violinist Gurath.
All five Chesapeake ensembles offered their appreciation for the warmth of host families who opened their homes to them and the large, attentive live audience at the Ebenezer Theater. Each of the finalist groups demonstrated that their musical ambitions are well within reach in terms of skill and discipline.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton. Photos by Calvin Jackson.