Music Festival’s Historic First

    Music by three composers was linked together by a common theme at a Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival concert on Sunday.
    Called “Historic Firsts,” the program, at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, consisted of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, considered the first major piece written for the combination of piano and three strings; Kenji Bunch’s “Changes of Phase” for woodwind quintet, which was commissioned by the festival and premiered in 1999, and Louis Spohr’s Nonet in F, the first-ever work to call itself a nonet.
    Apart from this commonality, each piece was quite different and came about under varied circumstances.
    Mozart wrote the Piano Quartet in G Minor for a commission from the publisher Hoffmeister. The publisher feared, however, that the work was too difficult for amateurs (indeed it was) and admonished Mozart to “write more popularly or else I can neither print nor pay for anything of yours.” Of course Mozart would not write otherwise, or could not; the contract was canceled. Fortunately, another publisher later issued the quartet.
    The quartet is significant not only because of the use of the then-unusual combination of instruments (featuring the piano as an equal solo voice rather than a mere accompaniment), but because it marked a new maturity in Mozart’s style. The musicologist Alfred Einstein called the key of G minor Mozart’s “key of fate,” and you knew from the beginning that the music would be intense, agitated, and unsettling.
    With Ani Kavafian on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola, Edward Arron on cello, and Jeewon Park on piano, the playing was stirring and flawless and the interplay of the instruments was captivating.
    The facial expressions and body language of Ms. Park and Mr. Arron were especially engaging. They showed their complete immersion in the moment.
    The third movement was a rondo, which is typically a lighter, vivacious movement. But in this quartet one could hear more seriousness, at most a carefully qualified joy rather than the more usual jocularity.
    We may not know much about what prompted Mozart to write the quartet. We know more about the ideas that prompted Mr. Bunch to write “Changes of Phase.”
    Mr. Bunch, a native of Portland, Ore.,  is a violist as well as a composer. He has been commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra, the Phoenix Symphony, Wolf Trap, and the New Juilliard Ensemble. He was about 26 years old at the time of the premiere of “Changes of Phase” 12 seasons ago, when that term from his high school chemistry class was still in his head.
    He wrote, “I always liked the idea of something changing its physical appearance while keeping its chemical integrity (i.e., water to ice to vapor). . . . There are so many ways to musically illustrate a change of phase . . . like metric modulation, reharmonizations, minimalism, and melodic development.”
    The quintet was made up of Marya Martin, the artistic director of the festival, on flute, John Snow on oboe, Jose French-Ballester on clarinet, Peter Kolkay on bassoon, and Stewart Rose on horn.
    I can’t say I could pick out which of the methods that Mr. Bunch described applied to which of the four resulting movements, or, quite honestly, that it mattered to the listener, but the results were satisfying.
    Though the music seemed to be more about textures and rhythms, there were also some touching moments of melody, especially in the second movement (the movements are unnamed) in the flute and horn.
    One interesting effect was produced in several instruments by a technique called flutter-tonguing, made when the player adds a rolled R to the breath, resulting in a light, breathy, trilled sound.
    Mr. Bunch cites varied influences in his music in general: Shostakovich and Metallica, Ravel and Sondheim, Ligeti and Stevie Wonder. I was aware of eclectic influences being brought together successfully without any one of them standing out. The music had playful, irregular rhythms with urban humor, and was sonorous, vivid, and sophisticated.
    Although Louis Spohr is not a well-known composer today, he was in his time considered more famous than Beethoven, and his music was regarded as equal to Mozart’s. He is known largely by a violin concerto, and by the historical tidbits that he invented — the chin rest for the violin as well as rehearsal numbers on the written score — and was the first major conductor to use a baton.
    His nonet was the first piece of music to use that title, some say the first piece ever written specifically for nine instruments, and the first to use the combination of four strings and woodwind quintet. This claim to fame, however, seems to be more because of the request for this instrumentation by his benefactor, Johann von Tost, than Spohr’s originality.
    Von Tost specified that any scores written by Spohr under his contract would become von Tost’s property for three years and had to be borrowed from him for each performance, which should happen as often as possible and only in his presence. His stated goal thereby was to meet music lovers who he hoped would then become business partners!
    Spohr’s desire to satisfy his benefactor might explain in part some general qualities of the nonet: pleasant, inoffensive, and predictably happy. Spohr was a skilled composer, but the music was not profound or impassioned, nor was it intended to be. In fact, if it were given a less than satisfactory performance, it could sound quite banal.
    The case on Sunday was quite the opposite. With great attention to expression and ensemble, the nonet was brought alive by Arnaud Sussman on violin, Mr. Cords on viola, Mr. Arron on cello, Jeffrey Beecher on double bass, and the same quintet as in the previous piece.
    Even the somewhat darker moments in the music were just temporary clouds before sunshine broke out again. The audience was uplifted with a feeling that all was right with the world. Where else can we find that these days?
    The Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival continues through Aug. 21; more information is at It should be noted that this season’s concerts are being recorded for broadcast on American Public Media’s “Performance Today.”
    A new feature of the festival’s Web site this year is that you can listen to a short sound file of each work from every concert, just enough to whet your appetite or perhaps help you choose from among the offerings.