MUSIC REVIEWS : Camerata Bern Offers Spirited Program

Camerata Bern, a youthful and exuberant cluster of 15 string players, opened the Chamber Music in Historic Sites season this week. Though intonationally inconsistent and occasionally rough-toned, it plays with an irrepressible spirit.

The ensemble did so even against adversity Tuesday night in the Crystal Ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel, when the management's scheduling problems caused a delayed start: The 8 p.m. event could not begin until 9:15.

That Camerata Bern, traveling this season with the redoubtable oboist Heinz Holliger as guest soloist, was worth the wait may be beside the point--late is late, and seldom excusable. But a virtually overflowing crowd in the large ballroom complained not at all, and greeted the group from Switzerland heartily.

As might have been expected, Holliger dominated the program's first half with his trademark virtuosity, elegant musicality and ear-opening insights. Accompanied by the Bernsters, and with co-soloist Thomas Zehetmair playing the violin, Holliger found a new expressive take on the familiar ground that is J.S. Bach's C-minor Concerto.

Then, with Zehetmair leading from the first-violin's stand, the Swiss oboist offered a more esoteric work, C.P.E. Bach's less familiar Concerto in E-flat, and swept all before him in a breathtaking (our breath, not his) run-through, complete with a stunning, first-movement cadenza that managed to sound improvisatory.

Closing this event, sponsored by the Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary's College, Camerata Bern--most of its players stand, do not sit--essayed the exposed challenges of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, in the transcription of Gustav Mahler.

Even with momentary technical blemishes and lumpy ensemble textures, the group displayed an admirable and focused energy and an emotional generosity perfectly appropriate to Schubert's openheartedness. The result: a mechanically flawed but wonderfully communicative performance; its best feature became the central, trap-filled variations movement.

The showplace Crystal Ballroom, which reportedly held close to 500 listeners on Tuesday, remains a visually garish but acoustically welcoming chamber for music, perhaps just the right location to begin what promises to be another horizon-expanding season of "Sites" concerts. Even with a lot of strong competition, this series still seems to have a monopoly on concerts that lift the spirit.

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