Music Review: East Nashville’s underground music scene gets classical, thanks to the Eastwood Ensemble

eastwood3The Eastwood Ensemble would appear to be on to something.

On Sunday evening, this terrific group of East Nashville-based classical musicians held one of its “underground” concerts. These performances are presented at historic East Nashville homes and serve the twofold purpose of 1) returning chamber music to its rightful place of origin, namely, the living room, and 2) celebrating the strikingly original and beautiful architecture of these old houses.

The music certainly seemed to benefit from this sort of presentation. Audience members could literally feel the presence of music performed just a few feet in front of them. There was also something appealing about hearing classical music – with its reputation for elitism and stuffiness – in such an informal setting.

The 20 or so guests who arrived at the Lockeland Springs-neighborhood home of Neal Cappellino – a Grammy Award-winning engineer – were able to socialize directly with the musicians during a pre-concert soirée. There was no artificial line delineating artist from audience member at this event. Indeed, the musicians seemed more like hosts who were as happy to share their music as they were their food.

The music, like the food, consisted mostly of light fare. The program featured well-known salon confections by Schumann, Liszt, Mendelsohn and Dvorak. There was even a bit of esoterica in the form of a Bassoon Trio by the early 19th-century French bassoonist and composer François René Gabauer (no, I had never heard of him, either).

Cellist Xiao-Fan Zhang opened the performance with the evening’s biggest discovery, a short “Pastoral” for cello and piano by 20th-century Chinese composer Shahan Kun. This delightful work sounded, at least to my ear, more European than Asian, more like a folk song from the Caucasus than a Chinese piece. Zhang and his accompanist, pianist Megan Gale, played it with immediacy and sincere feeling. If Yo-Yo Ma hasn’t already played this piece with his Silk Road Ensemble, he should take it up.

Zhang followed with two transcriptions. His rendition of Liszt’s famous Liebestraum No. 3 brought out the work’s lyricism, though not its sense of fiery passion.  His decision to add lots of double stops to Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song detracted some from this music’s sweet simplicity, though it did seem to be in keeping with the evening’s Romantic spirit.

Bassoonist Dawn Hartley joined Zhang and violinist Anna Lisa Hoepfinger to play Gabauer’s Bassoon Trio. This piece was filled with lively (and technically demanding) bassoon passages and exuberant violin melodies. Hartley and her companions played every note with style and flair.

eastwood5Hoepfinger presented two evergreen works for violin – Dvorak’s Humoresque No. 7 and Kreisler’s Andantino. She played the former with Bohemian warmth and the latter with lyrical expressiveness. The versatile Dawn Hartley provided sensitive accompaniment on piano.

The clarinet got its due on Sunday. Clarinetist Tia Thomason, Eastwood’s founder and director, joined fellow clarinetist Daniel Lochrie to perform a charming duet by Anton Stadler, who had been a close friend of Mozart. Thomason and Lochrie gave this music an appealing and elegant reading. Lochrie returned at the end of the concert to play a set of variations on Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer” on bass clarinet. His performance was brimming with lighthearted charm.

In the end, I found much to admire in Eastwood’s underground venture. True, the group’s program was a bit too safe for my tastes – I got the sense that the players were going out of their way not to stretch any ears or ruffle any emotional feathers. Yet at the same time, they managed to restore  chamber music’s most essential ingredient – intimacy.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.