The return of the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival to live concerts after a 2020 virtual series of prerecorded and livestream performances is reason enough to celebrate. But the impeccable elegance of the Chesapeake Music’s new home made the evening a visual and musical sensation starring, among others, cellist Marcy Rosen and violinist Catherine Cho, the festival’s co-artistic directors.
Downtown Easton now has a resplendently restored performing arts venue in a space formerly known as the Prager Auditorium. But that space has been renamed Ebenezer Theater and transformed by inspired taste and rich refinement. No doubt, the inspiration derives, in part, from the building’s original purpose as a house of worship. Built in 1856-57, Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal remained a church for more than a century until Ebenezer and two other Easton congregations merged to form St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the early 1960s. Six new stained-glass windows reflect a faith in culture and the arts.
You enter the theater from an unprepossessing Washington Street entrance. Up one flight of olive-green carpeted stairs brings you into what was once a sanctuary, redesigned with features suggesting the church’s early period. Patterned carpeting complements the stained-glass colors; each window draped in gold fabric matching the stage curtain. Gold Victorian-style wallpaper flanks the stage, which itself frames a Gothic celestial arch. Overhead, nine sleekly modern chandeliers adorn an intricately embossed gold-leaf ceiling. Seating is by movable plush chairs in grape-green upholstery, both on the concert hall floor and balcony at the back of the theater.
For this COVID restricted concert, chairs were grouped in pods of two to four seats together, totaling no more than half the Ebenezer’s expected capacity of about 180. Masks are still required of those attending the festival, including the musicians.
The evening opened with brief remarks by Chesapeake Music director/founder Don Buxton, who called attention to the stage’s centerpiece–a restored Steinway grand piano. Fittingly, the inaugural piece played in the grand new concert hall was Mozart’s “Piano Trio No. 2,” written at a time in his career when the pianoforte, forerunner to the modern piano, emerged as an instrument displacing the harpsichord. Mozart, himself a keyboard virtuoso, wrote this trio in part to showcase his own performance skills. The piece opens with a bright and lilting solo performed Friday night by Ieva Jokubaviciute. Catherine Cho quickly joins her in a sparkling violin turn bolstered by Marcy Rosen’s cello underpinning. Together they create a lyrical dream sequence followed by mood-shifting movements indicating discord, regrets, and hopeful resolution.
From the comfort food of Mozart, the program turns sharply to Webern’s piece that undercuts the key structure of every piece Amadeus and other grand masters wrote. Webern’s early 20th century “Langsamer Satz,” roughly translated as Slowly with Feeling, gives equal measure to all 12 notes on the chromatic scale. No E-sharp, C-flat, or whatever. A quintet–violinists Cho and Francesca dePasquale, violist Molly Carr, cellist Peter Stumpf, and Peggy Pearson on oboe–incrementally build “Langsamer” to a searing emotional crescendo abetted by a throbbing cello vibrato, mournful violins, and a piercing woodwind that ultimately relax their grip into a placid and somewhat anticlimactic resolve.
Intermission provides a break to prepare us for Dvorak’s “Piano Quartet No. 2,” performed by pianist Diane Walsh with dePasquale, Carr, and Stumpf on strings. From the lush four-instrument opening to march-like cadences and staccato interludes, the quartet takes us on a roller-coaster of moods that might be interpreted as psychotic episodes. Indeed, Dvorak wrote the piece in a fevered stretch of a few summer weeks after one of his benefactors complained that he had not delivered the promised piano quartet in 14 years. It would be Dvorak’s last quartet, but well worth the wait.
Kudos to Chesapeake Music’s adventurous program, delivering both a splendid portion of meat and potatoes (Mozart) and exotic fruit and vegetables (Webern and Dvorak). Kudos also to Paul and Joanne Prager for this Ebenezer jewel. There is more to come in future restoration as the name atop of the former church suggests: The Prager Family Arts Center.
Full disclosure: Because of COVID restrictions and the early sellout of the opening concert, I am reviewing the music via livestream, although I did observe a pre-concert rehearsal by the musicians. Second disclosure: I attended church services and Sunday school at the Ebenezer until St. Mark’s opened when I was in junior high. Although I vaguely recall the organ music and choir, it’s doubtful that either was as artfully inspiring as the new Ebenezer’s opening night, justifiably billed as “Extravaganza.”
By the way, the name Ebenezer has nothing to do with Scrooge. It stands biblically for “stone of help,” of which Easton’s Ebenezer was and could be again by virtue of arts inspiration.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.
36th CHAMBER FESTIVAL OPENING NIGHT
Mozart’s “Piano Trio in G Major, K. 496;” Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” (Slowly with Feeling); Dvorak’s “Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, Opus 87.”
Ebenezer Theater, 17 S. Washington St., Easton. Festival continues at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5, with “Dynamic Duos,” Sunday, June 6, “Summer Nights,” Tuesday, June 10, “Masterworks,” Friday, June 11, “Piano Spotlight,” and Saturday, June 12, “Festival Finale.” Tickets $50, live-streaming $15 (viewing available for one week, including Friday’s opening night). chesapeakemusic.org, 410-819-0380