Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, May 24, 2001

‘Na Iwi O Pele’
a treat in Hot Lava
chamber offering

Reviewed by Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

COMPOSERS label their small ensemble works "chamber music" for a reason: the music often depends on the chamber for its impact. Far too often, such works are performed in large concert halls that make the music sound anemic.

In a warm, resonant chamber such as the Atherton Performing Arts Studio at Hawai'i Public Radio station, however, chamber works blossom. Even the softest whispers envelope the audience and draw them into the musicians' intimate dialogue, and fortes overwhelm in a way even symphonies cannot.

On Tuesday, the Atherton studio presented the perfect venue for "Trios and Tribulations," the first concert of this year's Red-Hot Lava Chamber Music Festival. A quasi-annual event, the festival offers concerts and a variety of educational opportunities, including master classes, coaching clinics, open rehearsals, and chamber music reading soirées. Members of the Red-Hot Chamber Ensemble are professional musicians from two families, the Karps and the Fosters: parents Howard and Frances Karp (pianists), son Parry Karp (cello) and his wife Katrin Talbot (viola), and their friends, Daniel Foster (violin) and his brother Norman Foster (clarinet), who plays for the Honolulu Symphony.

Red-Hot Lava
Chamber Music Festival

Remaining events:

>> Daniel Foster and Parry Karp Coaching Student String Quartets, 4 to 6 p.m. today at Punahou School Montague Hall, featuring the Cooke, Chang, Hiroko Primrose, and Katherine Kennard Vaught Memorial quartets playing works by Haydn, Ravel, Dvorak, and Shostakovich. Free.

>> "An Evening of Contrasts -- From Mozart to Bartok and Beyond," 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts Theatre. Tickets are $10 general; $8 for students and seniors. Call 532-8768.

The Karps and Fosters grew up playing chamber music together, until college and jobs scattered them across the nation. The families formed the Red-Hot Lava Chamber Ensemble partly to perform together again, but also with the mission to inspire students to explore chamber music. To that end, the ensemble shares both process (in public and invitation-only educational events) and product (in concerts).

In Tuesday's concert, the ensemble performed a pleasant trio by Carl Fruhling, a late-19th-century Viennese Kleinmeister, a major work by Brahms, his B Major Trio, Opus 8, and a bit of "ear candy," three of Brahms's Hungarian Dances, arranged for the ensemble by Norman Foster.

The highlight of the evening was the world premiere of University of Hawai'i composer Donald Reid Womack's "Na Iwi O Pele (The Bones of Pele)," a work commissioned by the ensemble and dedicated to Norman Foster. Womack explained that the title refers to shards of broken lava on the slopes of Maui's Haleakala, the remnants of a terrifying battle between Pele, goddess of fire, and her sister Namakaokahai, goddess of the sea. Defeated and left for dead, Pele escaped to the Big Island, where she lives today. Her "bones," the shards of lava, serve as a metaphor for Pele's dual nature: mortal and divine, destroyer and creator, desolation and beauty, strength and fragility.

"Na Iwi O Pele," in one movement about 18 minutes long, opens with an explosive crash. Out of the ensuing pianissimo, the music rises slowly to coalesce into a tutti statement of the main chantlike theme that unifies its numerous sections and alternately eruptive or lyric moods.

At the end, the clarinet echoes a motive from the theme as the piece evaporates into nothingness. Womack's expressive language, drawing on techniques as diverse as Stravinsky's syncopated percussive rhythms and Reich's minimalist cells, is eclectic but also distinctive. "Na Iwi's" evocative drama recalls Womack's commissions for the Honolulu Symphony, "Emerald Sparks" and "On Fields of Frozen Fire" (also inspired by lava).

"Na Iwi O Pele" is a stirring, exciting work and will be repeated at the festival's May 28 concert at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The Red-Hot Lava Chamber Ensemble contains talented musicians, all. Parry Karp, with the strongest musical voice, provided the ensemble's interpretive keystone and was balanced best in the Brahms Trio with Daniel Foster and Howard Karp.

Guest violist Anna Womack, substituting for Katrin Talbot, fit smoothly into the group, contributing a subtle but firm voice. Norman Foster, on the lone wind instrument, fit less comfortably into the group but delivered some notable solos. Frances Karp is a fine pianist but, perhaps reflecting her maternal role, accompanied more than joined in the dialogue.

Formed in 1998, the ensemble is still young for a chamber group and has yet to meld into that "oneness of distinctive voices" ideal that can come from years of togetherness. But as they grow, the ensemble has much to offer audiences and are a pleasure to hear.

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