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The yearlong silence in the local concert halls ended for me on the evening of March 29. Ian Hobson, music director of the Sinfonia da Camera, organized a series of three chamber music concerts performed in Champaign’s University Place Christian Church. This was my first indoor concert since March 12 of last year, when the UI Symphony performed Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar.”

The performers at the March 29 concert were mainly first desk players of the Sinfonia da Camera. The audience at this concert was small in number, masked and dispersed, two groups to a pew, throughout this lovely and acoustically lively church.

The concert began with Claude Debussy’s “Petite Suite for Piano Four Hands,” which is an 1889 piece and “petite” in the sense of being primarily designed for amateurs.

But there was nothing amateurish about the playing of Ian Hobson and Samir Golescu, the latter of whom is director of music at University Place church. The opening movement, “En bateau” (“Sailing”), projected utter serenity under the skilled fingers of Hobson and Golescu, and the other perky, olden times dance episodes were played with subtle phrasing.

The longest and most ambitious work on the program was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1796/7, during his fourth year in Vienna. This “Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds,” Opus 19, is said to be inspired by Mozart’s Quintet, K. 452, with the same instruments, even the same key of E-flat. While an early work, Beethoven therein showed the master’s hand in the blending of four different sonorities along with the piano part. With Hobson at the piano, the excellent wind players were John Dee, oboe; J. David Harris, clarinet; Hank Skolnick, bassoon; and Bernhard Scully, horn.

The Quintet began with a solemn fanfare, followed by a lighthearted theme which was developed by combined interweaving of the four wind voices. Later, each of these fine players had their chances to excel in brief solos.

In the finale, the repeats of a skipping Mozartean tune was driven by Hobson and the wind players to an exciting conclusion. The audience responded with warm applause. (The wind players, for obvious reasons, did not wear masks.)

The following piece, Camille Saint-Saëns “Morceau de Concert,” Opus 94, was composed in 1887 and dedicated to a horn player named Henri Chaussier, who had just invented a horn with a new valve mechanism. The invention did not succeed, but the Paris Conservatory repeatedly used this “Morceau” as an examination piece. Bernhard Scully played it with lovely tone and with masterful aplomb, ably assisted by Hobson at the keyboard. The technical hurdles of the piece were vaulted by Scully with virtuoso finesse. This was the most brilliant playing of the evening and received the heftiest applause.

The last work of the evening was by Darius Milhaud, the most prolific composer of “Les Six,” that upstart group of young French composers in the 1920s. His “Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano,” Op. 157b, was composed in 1936, a few years after his journey to Brazil, and some of the music of this Suite was a reworking of material from incidental music for a play by Jean Anouihl entitled “Traveller without Baggage.” The perky and jolly turns of mood brought vivid and exciting playing from violinist Andrés Cárdenes, J. David Harris, clarinet, and Ian Hobson, who here and elsewhere during this concert played with his usual polished control.

I attended the second concert of the series on March 30, during which works by Franz Schubert, Joaquin Turina and Antonin Dvorák were played. Dvorak’s “Piano Quintet No. 2,” Op. 81, was played with such verve and excitement by Andrés Cárdenas, violin; Michael Barta, violin; Csaba Erdélyi, viola; Amy Catron, cello; and Hobson, piano, that it brought the Tuesday evening audience to their feet, with sustained applause. A third concert was given on April 1.

Ian Hobson and the other players are to be strongly commended in their effort to bring this beautiful music to us in these trying times.

John Frayne hosts ‘Classics of the Phonograph’ on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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