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Tucson Weekly String Fling

The second annual Tucson Winter Chamber Festival gets underway.

By Dave Irwin

MARCH 1, 1999:  I HAD A teacher at Northwestern University more than 40 years ago who told me, 'Be careful of chamber music, it's like a drug,' " says Ralph Votapek, an award-winning solo pianist who is returning for his second Tucson Winter Chamber Festival. "If you really get totally immersed in it, you'll never want to play solo again. It's too comfortable, it's too nice. If I had many chamber experiences like I did three years ago, I might have succumbed, because it was great."

The sixth annual festival, led by cellist and former UA faculty Peter Rejto and sponsored by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, holds a unique place in music as one of the few non-summer events of its type. As a result, it's drawn world-class musicians to town to play an ambitious mix of familiar and more obscure chamber works. The intimate enclave, from February 28 through March 7, features a combination of free rehearsals and master classes, reasonably priced concerts and a gala fundraising dinner/recital with the twelve musicians.

Violinist Benny Kim, much in demand for his solo concerto work from his position on the University of Missouri faculty, is returning for his third time.

"Tucson holds a very special place for me," Kim says. "I love the music and I love the city. When you have the opportunity to get the caliber of musicians that Peter gets together, it's absolutely fantastic. The compelling reasons for me to go to a particular festival are not financial. In this case, there's a lot of reasons, the personnel and the pieces, plus I know the town and I love the golf courses. I'll have my sticks with me for sure."

Among the works Kim will play is Sergei Prokofiev's Sonata in C Major for Two Violins, Op. 56 with famed violinist Ida Kavafian, who heads her own Angel Fire Festival in New Mexico. "I've worked together with Ida a lot," he says. "The Prokofiev is a great piece. It's for two violins, but it's not like there's a violin I or a violin II. The two parts get intermeshed and flopped around so much that they're both equally difficult and much of the time you can't tell who's playing what part anyway, so it's very interesting to watch as well as listen."

According to director Rejto, "There are a lot of festivals that are longer, but they do less in a week. We cram a lot into a short period of time. I think that gives more of a festival atmosphere, because there are more continuous events and you can see the same artist performing in different guises and different groups with different settings, like the dinner concert or the Thursday youth concert."

The event has developed its own amusing stories of musicians dealing with Tucson's unique conditions. Three years ago, Votapek remembers, violinist Joseph Suk, the grandson of composer Antonín Dvorák, was concerned by the effect of the dry air on his delicate instrument. Votapek recalls, "He walked into the dressing room and said, "I can't stand this climate, my violin," and turned on every faucet in all the basins to try and get some humidity."

"A lot of chamber music is a rush job--it hits a certain level and that's it," Votapek acknowledges. "So often the music is hastily prepared--we just do it and I get back to my solo music. With Tucson, we go in very well prepared."

Among the works Votapek will perform is Oliver Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, one of the most important pieces in 20th-century chamber music. The unusual instrumentation of piano, violin, clarinet and cello was dictated by the available musicians at the German POW camp where Messiaen was held during World War II. He composed a long, eight-movement, highly religious work whose first performance was before 5,000 fellow prisoners.

Other not-usually-heard works at this year's festival will be jazz great Wynton Marsalis' At the Octoroon Ball; Ludwig van Beethoven's Quintet for Quartet and Viola in C Major, Op, 29; contemporary composer Alfred Schnittke's Piano Quintet and two works by French romantic Ernest Chausson, the Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 30 and his Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21.

More familiar works will include two late Johannes Brahms' pieces, his Trio for Clarinet, Piano and Cello in A minor, Op. 114, and the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet in B minor, Op. 115; Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 45 and Dvorák's American folk music-influenced Viola Quintet in E Flat, Op. 97. The Quintet will see Kavafian playing second violin with her husband, Steve Tenebom, along with his group, the Orion Quartet, who will be the string quartet mainstay of this year's festival.

One of the more educational parts of the festival are the free open rehearsals from 9 a.m. to noon on February 29 and March 3, 5 and 7. These allow the audience to hear the subtle skills that the musicians bring to the works, tweaking parts here and there and discussing the composer's intent. Kim and Rejto will also offer free master classes to students of violin and cello respectively on Friday afternoon.

"The festival lives or dies on the artists and the repertoire," says Rejto. "I always hope that I find interesting repertoire that isn't heard on the regular quartet series. I feel like it's a great list of people. It's not a very large group of artists, but it's pretty intense."

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