Laura Ardan, Elizabeth Pridgen and Brad Ritchie perform Tommy Joe Anderson's "Trio" for clarinet, cello and piano. (photo courtesy of Atlanta Chamber Players)

Review: Atlanta Chamber Players battle acoustics in works by Clara and Robert Schumann

William Ford | 15 OCT 2019

One of the signs that autumn has finally arrived in Atlanta is the beginning of the new concert season for many groups, including the Atlanta Chambers Players (ACP). Contemporary works, works of the well-known masters, and those of the not-so-well-known comprise most ACP programs. Sunday’s program in Moore Chapel at the beautiful Peachtree Road United Methodist Church was no exception.

Florent Schmitt is one of those “almost-made-it” composers who was popular during his lifetime (1870 to 1958) but has been largely forgotten since then. One might say that Schmitt looked firmly backward in his compositions. He attended school with some of the major Impressionist composers and he seemed content to seek his inspiration from them throughout his career.

His Sonatine en Trio (1936) for flute, clarinet, and keyboard from 1935 is an example of the huge debt his style paid to the Impressionists, especially Debussy. It is pleasant music that has many lovely piano runs and even some organum-like passages for the flute and clarinet. The sonatina was played magnificently by flutist Todd Skitch, clarinetist Laura Ardan and pianist Julie Coucheron. Hearing this music might just be enough to spark curiosity about Schmitt’s music; if so, his oeuvre is fairly well represented on several video streaming channels.

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One final note, and apropos of current cultural issues, Schmitt was a well-known supporter of the Vichy government in France. It raises questions such as: Should the artist be forgiven for occasional bad judgment when evaluating their artistic output? And does Schmitt’s music stand apart from his personal/political choices?

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth. She was a famous pianist and composer, the wife of the Robert Schumann, and an intimate of Johannes Brahms. Much has been written about this triangle, and it even made it into a Hollywood movie. Her Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17, was composed in 1846, a decade before her husband’s death, and during a time when Brahms was offering his personal support for the couple.

Clara’s Piano Trio is unmistakably influenced by Brahms (or maybe the influence goes the other way), but nevertheless the two shared similar ideas about structure and about style, e.g, the pairing of the violin and cello to play the melody, often an octave apart. Violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, cellist Rainer Eudekis (making his ACP debut), and pianist Elizabeth Pridge performed the Trio.

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The first movement (Allegro Moderato) had various intonation issues and the second and third movements (Scherzo and Andante) were at times poorly shaped; some phrases lacked subtlety. It was if everyone were concentrating on getting the notes right rather than homing in on the music. The final movement (Allegretto) is the least successful of the four from a compositional perspective but was well-played by the ACP. This performance also highlighted the rather hard and bright acoustics of the Moore Chapel. As a result, Kim’s violin, always a bit bright sounding, was unfavorably spotlighted by the unforgiving acoustics.

Local composer and music scholar Tommy Joe Anderson wrote his Trio, Op 14 for clarinet, cello and piano in 1972. The composer describes it as a serial composition, with influences from composers such as Poulenc and Bartok. It is characterized by rapid-fire single notes, especially in the first and third movements, with limited thematic development. It is a jaunty work overall and is fairly short in duration. It was played sympathetically here by Ardan, Pridgen and cellist Brad Ritchie.

The final work was Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47, written in 1842. The performers were Kim, violist Catherine Lynn, Ritchie, and Coucheron. The first movement begins with a slow introduction that sounds a bit uncertain, here made even more so because the musicians were not exactly together. The second movement (Scherzo) was given a cordial performance, but the third movement, which is a lyrical Andante cantabile, was diminished by major intonation issues and a lack of a firm rhythmic core. The final movement also had major intonation issues and at times seemed unfocused, as if the performers did not share a unified musical vision of the work. Again, the unflattering acoustics did not help.

The next ACP performance is November 19 in Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. There will be works by Higdon, Nabors and Dohnanyi and it marks a return to a space that is tailor-made for chamber music. ■

William Ford is an avid classical music fan and a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. His reviews and interviews can most frequently be found online at Bachtrack and