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HEART AND SOUL

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The reassuring power of music remains one of our best hopes for the continued survival of civilized society, and the fact that the fall classical season is underway will undoubtedly "civilize" us even further.

The 21 members of the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble - an offshoot of the renowned Orchestra of St. Luke’s, this season under Principal Conductor Donald Runnicles - open their Signature Series of three concert programs performed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, on Oct. 7. The subtitle for the chamber ensemble’s series, "The Heart and Soul of St. Luke’s," has never been more solemnly appropriate.

Most orchestras program chamber music series so their members can practice their chops, so to speak, play music for smaller groups of musicians, or simply so they can perform great pieces that a larger orchestra could not play. The St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble is no exception; its three programs strike a fine balance between all of the foregoing, allowing most of its members the opportunity to play in at least one of the concerts during the season.

For its opening concert, the ensemble goes right to the heart of the Russian musical soul, performing 19th-century works by composers as diverse as Mikhail Glinka, Sergei Taneyev and Piotr Tchaikovsky, whose gleaming Sextet for Strings (subtitled "Souvenir for Florence") closes the concert.

Although the Tchaikovsky work is the most notable, each of the other works has its own striking qualities. The Glinka trio, for example, called the "Pathetique," is ingeniously scored for clarinet, bassoon and piano; the composer gets the music to sound melancholy with enormous skill, considering that bassoon (played by Dennis Godburn) is often ignored as a "serious" solo or ensemble instrument.

As for Taneyev’s Quintet No. 1 for Strings, its grave moments are balanced by a truly Russian gift for melody, not unlike his near-contemporary Tchaikovsky.

There are few true chamber works, by definition, that are written for many players, but J.S. Bach’s most familiar masterpieces, the Six Brandenburg Concerti, are among them. The Brandenburgs are usually taken up by most companies as a festive program around holiday time. St. Luke’s, however, has it scheduled for the Brooklyn Museum of Art on Nov. 11. And why not? The brilliance of the Brandenburgs shouldn’t preclude them from being heard in any other month but December, and they give much of the ensemble a rare chance to shine together.

With special guest baritone Kurt Ollmann, St. Luke’s will wrap up its 2001-2002 season with a challenging, intriguing program at the museum on March 17. Opening with a rarely heard Franz Schubert piece - Introduction and Variations on the song "Trockne Blumen" ("Faded Flowers") from the cycle "Die Schoene Muellerin" ("The Maid of the Mill") - the concert then moves onto Ollmann singing Maurice Ravel’s typically dazzling "Chansons Madecasses" ("Madagascar Songs"), a group of witty French melodies accompanied by flute, cello and piano.

Finally, after intermission comes one of the weightiest, most profound works in any genre - not just chamber music: Schubert’s Quintet for Strings. This epic, nearly hour-long work derives much of its gravity from the second cello, along with the standard string quartet of two violins, viola and cello. That second cello gives each bar of music a special weight, imbuing nearly every second of this intensely moving music with an almost unbearable sadness, particularly the astonishing 20-minute opening slow movement.

For those audience members who want to hear this top-flight ensemble in a place other than the Brooklyn Museum of Art - let’s say in one’s own home - the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble has several recordings that are either just released or are on the way. Already available are two CDs, "From the Forest" (Arabesque Recordings, $17), featuring Stewart Rose on horn; and a new take on the Vivaldi war horse "Four Seasons" (EMI Classics, $17), with violinist Kyung Wha Chung.

But what is still to come is even more tantalizing, all courtesy of the Arabesque label. First is a recording of Haydn’s Symphonies 6, 7 and 8, titled "Morning, Noon and Night." Haydn penned 104 symphonies, and it’ll be nice to have a recording of three of his most charming works on one disc ($17).

Secondly, last year’s superlative St. Luke’s performance at the museum of a special arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 - with the lithe soprano Heidi Grant Murphy singing the lovely children’s song "Das himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life)" in the final movement - has been recorded; Richard Westerfield conducted (Arabesque, $17). And, lastly, St. Luke’s members Elizabeth Mann and Deborah Hoffman play transcriptions of Chopin for Flute and Harp on another recording (Arabesque, $17).

The St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble will perform their Signature Series at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (200 Eastern Parkway) beginning on Oct. 7 at 2 pm. Tickets are $25, $18 students, seniors and Brooklyn Museum of Art members. For more information about the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, go to www.orchestraofstlukes.org on the Web or call (212) 594-6100.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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