PRIZM Ensemble reveals true colors in Chamber Music Festival

I had the pleasure of attending the PRIZM Ensemble’s Faculty Concert Series Performance, Dead Elvis, on Monday night. I met with Lecolion Washington months ago when he invited me to this performance. Lecolion read my blog post, “Audience Shaming Needs to End“, and was excited to share ideas with me on engaging audience members and students to elevate classical music. Little did I know that he and his wife, Carina Nyberg Washington, founded this innovative and experimental chamber ensemble in my own backyard and work together as Director and Artistic Director.

Lecolion’s passion for sharing music with young musicians is inspiring, and is energy downright impressive. Like all creative geniuses, he has little time to rest. I arrived shortly before the performance began and he waved me over and greeted me eagerly: “It’s so great to see you, thank you for coming! I have to go eat some dinner…”  I glanced at the program and noticed he was playing in the first piece (in 10 minutes). “Crazy day, huh?” I responded jovially. Clearly it didn’t begin to describe it.

This week the PRIZM Ensemble is holding their Chamber Music Festival, which encompasses the education component of their mission. They coach student chamber music groups, hold masterclasses, and offer the opportunity for students to perform in recitals during this week’s Chamber Music Festival.

The Festival’s mantra: 4 days. 5 concerts. Classical music is alive and well.

What struck me were the excited audience members (of all ages) who proliferated the cozy church pews despite the fact that it was pouring down rain outside. Now understand something: the great people of Memphis support their arts, but Memphians notoriously do not like attending events when it is raining. So when this performance venue appeared to be fairly full, I realized how loyal this audience was to PRIZM.

“Last year they had chairs up front for participators”, remarked one patron behind me. About 5 minutes prior to the performance those chairs, immediately flanking either side of the stage, were filled by eager young student musicians participating in the PRIZM Summer Chamber Music Festival. I thumbed through the program and was impressed with the biographies of all the faculty performers. These student musicians are extraordinarily lucky to spend their summers studying with teachers of such high caliber right here in Memphis.

The concert started with introductions, but notably Lecolion’s thanks to the audience and to the students. “It is my life’s honor,” he choked, referring to the opportunities he has had through classical music and the joy he has in educating students. There was very expressive applause, confirming in my mind that this is a very loyal audience. Then the performance, and the fun, began.

Thoughts on the Performance

The first piece, Zelenka’s Trio Sonata ZWV 181 no 5, was probably my favorite due to the varied instrumentation. The performers were: Paul Roby, violin; Anna Pennington, oboe; Lecolion Washington, bassoon; Peter Miyamoto, cembalo; Scott Best, bass. I have not recently heard a Baroque composition that called for such varied instrumentation. I was not expecting two “alpha” instruments like violin and oboe, as well as doubled basso continuo lines with cembalo and bass. It was a nice change to have Lecolion on bassoon performing counterpart and melody rather than continuo. Paul added some beautiful texture to the sonorous winds with his violin and never did I feel that it overpowered the others. The performers were so well synced that their phrasing seemed to come from some central invisible source that they were all tapped into. It was truly a stunning performance, and the audience leapt to their feet at the end despite the fact that this was the first piece on the program.

The next piece was a lovely selection of unfamiliar Bruch pieces: Eight Pieces op. 83 performed by Anthony Gilbert on viola, Carina Nyberg Washington on clarinet, and Peter Miyamoto on piano. My favorite by far was No 6 Nachtgesang (Nocturne) Andante con moto. Carina effortlessly passed the melody to Anthony and they continued in this soothing conversation of surprising instrumental compatibility.

The Mozart Flute Quartet No 1 in D Major K. 285 was expertly performed by Alice K. Dade on flute, Daniel Gilbert on violin, Anthony Gilbert on viola, and Iren Zombor on cello. Alice largely had the spotlight with the flute part, but Daniel and Anthony had some fun melodies and countermelodies to complement. Iren lead the group through the cello’s continuo line. I enjoyed the communication collaboration between the performers in this piece, as they had a lot of musical “give and take” between all members rather than just following the lead of one player.

Daugherty’s Dead Elvis for Bassoon and Chamber Ensemble was the gem of the program. It was risky to name the program after a modern composition presumably none have heard of, but risky is what PRIZM does best. Plus, this is Memphis, where Elvis is King. This piece called for the largest ensemble of the evening: Lecolion Washington, bassoon; Carina Nyberg Washington, clarinet; Paul Roby, violin; Scott Best, bass; Susan Enger, trumpet; Michael Underwood,  trombone; Robert Kessling, percussion. The audience knew what was coming; the promotional materials showed Lecolion decked out in an Elvis suit, so we eagerly awaited the arrival of the King. We were not disappointed. Making a grand entrance at the front of the hall was Elvis himself, sashaying  down the aisle and soaking in all the attention. Really, the whole night was worth it just to see Lecolion’s performance of Elvis’ mannerisms. Some might say the outfit and attitude getup were distracting from the performance of the piece, but as a first time listener I think it added to it. It was humorous to be sure, but it was relevant to the piece and aided me aurally with the visual component. I can’t say the piece was beautiful compared to its Baroque and Classical companions, but it was well done and enjoyable.

All in all, I had a very enjoyable evening. I highly recommend you check out the rest of their performances this week. Support the PRIZM Ensemble faculty members, and definitely support the students as they learn and grow in this intensive chamber music environment.

Upcoming Concerts:

Thursday, June 12 at 7 p.m. – Faculty Concert Series, TROUT
Friday, Jun 13 at 7 p.m. – Faculty Concert Series, BIRD SONGS
Saturday, June 14 at 1 p.m. – Faculty Concert Series, OUTSIDE THE (SOUND) BOX
Saturday, June 14 at 7 p.m. – GALA CONCERT

All performances take place at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students with ID.

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