FEASTS OF HORS d'oeuvres sound alluring -- banquets of delights so rich they're best taken in small quantities. But can such a menu really be satisfying? The people cooking up the seventh Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival think so. Most of the pieces in this year's five-concert buffet are bite-sized, and the festival's artistic director makes no apology for the relative lack of meat-and-potatoes programming. In assembling recitals devoted largely to Hispanic and Italian chamber music, Peter Rejto has proudly concocted a musical tapas platter.
"Spanish, South American and Italian composers have always been among my favorites -- the 'earthy' colors, temperament and driving rhythms create an immediate and charged atmosphere," Rejto declares on the festival's website.
"However, these composers as a whole are not particularly known for their chamber music and tend compositionally toward the very grand (opera) or very intimate (solo). Though there are notable exceptions to this generalization, personally I find many of the larger chamber music works somewhat lacking; they tend to be grandiose and composed in a 'pseudo-European' style mostly lacking the ethnicity and color one expects. On the other hand, the shorter works are often pure gems!"
So Rejto opens this year's festival on Sunday and Tuesday, March 5 and 7, with a pair of mini-marathons showcasing 12 individual musicians, two quartets and a dozen composers -- many of the latter still alive.
The first concert alone features African-inspired pieces by William Kanengiser and Andrew York; Latin American confections by Carlos Rafael Rivera, Paulo Bellinati and Horacio Salinas; a recent work by a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (one of the ensembles anchoring this year's festival); and the world premiere of a piece for four guitars and percussion commissioned from the young Brazilian Raimundo Penaforte. The composer himself steps in on percussion.
Obviously, this is not your average Festival of Dead White Guys.
Not that it's at all avant-garde. The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, which organizes the festival, strives to balance the usual classical repertory with music that is contemporary yet no less accessible than Bartók or Shostakovich. Penaforte, for example, draws much of his inspiration from Brazilian folk music. He wrote a work for the Eroica Trio that the group played here a couple of seasons ago, and Friends president Jean-Paul Bierny was delighted with the result.
"It had a Brazilian feel, it was melodic and it went somewhere," he says, building to his usual fervor. "It was lively, it was young, and it was very well received. So I expect this is going to be a real turn-on as well."
If the Sunday concert revolves mainly around the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, the Tuesday concert is designed to introduce the rest of the resident musicians: the American String Quartet, violinist Benny Kim, violist Cynthia Phelps, cellist Rejto, pianists Lydia Artymiw and Rick Rowley, and several others. It too will be a smorgasbord, with concise works by the likes of Falla, Ginastera and Guarnieri, plus recent pieces by James Greeson and Alan Shulman (the latter described as a composer who "writes warmly lyrical works suggestive of Samuel Barber").
Later programs include the popular Barber String Quartet and pieces for mixed ensembles by Paganini, Turina, Revueltas, Villa Lobos, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Respighi. There will also be two substantial offerings from Stephen Paulus, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra's former composer-in-residence and one of the Midwest's leading composers. One of those works, an unusually configured quintet for viola and piano quartet, was written especially for the festival.
Rather incongruously, the series closes with a performance of Tchaikovsky's String Sextet, "Souvenir de Florence." Rejto claims this is a preview of next year's Russian-themed festival, but as a Florentine travelogue it also fits this year's Mediterranean emphasis.
The festival also includes a dinner concert on March 11; free, open dress rehearsals from 9 a.m. to noon the day of each concert, after the Sunday opener; a sold-out youth concert on March 6; and master classes with cellist David Gerber and pianist Lydia Artymiw from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 11. These classes are open to free public viewing, but are designed for teen players studying in Tucson Junior Strings programs and with members of the Tucson Music Teachers Association.
"That's our future audience," Bierny notes. "We're doing this for the younger players now because we've tried for years to have outreach to UA music students, but for the most part the results were pitiful."
"Outreach" is a word often on Bierny's lips these days. He's hoping that the programming of this year's festival will draw a Hispanic audience, something seldom seen at local classical-music concerts. Bierny admits that of the 3,000 names on the Friends' mailing list, only about 40 are Hispanic. To get the word out, he has enlisted the help of organizations ranging from the Mexican Consulate to Los Descendientes and the Hispanic Lawyers Association.
"Their response has been completely positive," he says, "but the ultimate test is how many warm Hispanic bodies will be in those seats."
The Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival presents concerts at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 5 and 12; and at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, March 7, 8 and 10, at the TCC Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $15 for individual concerts ($5 for students), or $65 for all five, and are available at the door. Free open rehearsals in the theater run from 9 a.m. to noon on the day of each concert, after March 5.
There is a gala concert-dinner at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 11. Reservations cost $80, and are available by calling 577-3769 by March 8.