Fort Worth — Hall Ensemble, a group of Fort Worth Symphony members including violinists Jennifer Chang and Izumi Lund, violist Aleksandra Holowka, cellist Karen Hall, and bassoonist Kevin Hall, offer much-needed variety on the Fort Worth music scene.
It’s not just the inevitable presence of Kevin Hall’s bassoon or his arrangements to accommodate that instrument that provides that variety, although that’s part of the group’s appeal. And no local group better advocates for that somewhat neglected instrument than Hall Ensemble—the bassoon may look a bit awkward and odd, but skillfully played, it is a gorgeous and versatile instrument, as Kevin Hall consistently demonstrates.
It’s also that, while house concerts have become almost commonplace in Dallas, they are a relative rarity in Fort Worth—Hall Ensemble is the only group organizing such concerts, so far. Further, in addition to the sold-out house concert series, the ensemble is performing the same programs for a lower ticket price at Avoca Coffee.
Sunday evening, I heard the inaugural performance at Avoca Coffee. This kind of concert is increasingly important in a world in which so many events and activities compete for peoples’ time and money. Wily arts groups can help secure a larger audience base by playing at nontraditional venues such as parks, bars, art galleries, and coffeehouses. Attendance at these venues doesn’t always translate to attendance at concerts in more traditional concert halls, but these concerts do bring classical music to an audience who may not want to dress up or pay the high ticket prices often commanded at traditional venues.
Chamber music was often, in centuries past, performed in private homes and other intimate venues. Sometimes the concerts were at the homes of patrons, themselves often musicians, who funded the concerts and might even play a piece or two. The Hall Ensemble replicated this experience Sunday; Tuesday’s concert was hosted by attorney/violinist Joe Cleveland and his wife Missy. Thus, Joe Cleveland and his sister Hallie Yarbrough performed the first movement of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor (the “Double”). Kevin Hall arranged the accompaniment for string quartet and his own bassoon. While Cleveland and Yarbrough played competently—both majored in violin performance at TCU—-they lacked the polished professionalism of the full-time musicians who accompanied them. But that’s okay. They’re participating in a grand tradition.
One of the other benefits of having bassoonist Kevin Hall as a member of this ensemble is that the group performs music local concertgoers would otherwise be unlikely to hear. One of those was the fun bassoon tango “Bassango” by Mathieu Lussier. Although this group didn’t ever quite achieve a natural-sounding Latin groove, the performance was still entertaining. The same can’t really be said for the Quartet for Bassoon, Violin, Viola, and Cello in B-flat Major by Carl Heinrich Jacobi.
Jacobi was a late-classical composer and bassoonist who wrote predominantly for his own instrument. While it’s always great to hear music by an unfamiliar or seldom-heard composer, the quartet the Hall Ensemble performed was, well, rather dull. This seemed to be less the fault of the performers and more that of the piece itself, predictable and staid. When casual listeners say that they listen to classical music because it’s “relaxing,” this is probably the sort of thing they’re thinking of. Relaxing, yes—even soporific. That said, Kevin Hall’s tone is lovely. The group does need to make sure they agree on aspects such as note length and phrasing.
The last piece on the printed program was Beethoven’s final string quartet (and very nearly the last music he ever wrote), his Op. 135 Quartet in F Major. Karen Hall provided some helpful remarks before the performance.
This quartet was an ambitious undertaking for the Hall Ensemble, but they availed themselves well. They consistently made an effort at sensitive ensemble playing, which paid off in the ways that the foursome shaped phrases. Intonation wasn’t always flawless, and some of the most difficult passages weren’t always executed cleanly, but the quartet was making music worth hearing, and the issues weren’t serious enough to distract from the Hall Ensemble’s interpretation of Beethoven’s vision.