A dimly-lit colonial-style church, eclectic programming and thoroughly committed music-making made a satisfying combination Sunday evening. It was the opening of the sixth annual "Chamber Music by Candlelight" concert series at Second Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, featuring members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Most impressive was an account of Dvorak's "American" Quartet by a BSO foursome that has gone by the name Atlantic String Quartet and, lately, Charm City String Quartet. The members have been performing together for five years, and it showed. Ensemble was tight throughout; phrasing was uniformly ardent and communicative; the group's smoothly-blended tone had considerable richness.
Dvorak's character-rich music seemed to speak strongly to the players. Violist Christian Colberg's burnished solo at the start of the first movement set the performance on its passionate course. (In the bouncy finale, he demonstrated with some wild shoulder action that it's possible to dance sitting down.) Cellist Gita Ladd's soulful playing in the "Lento" movement and the subsequent soaring duet by violinists Rebecca Nichols and Gregory Mulligan achieved particular eloquence; so did the hushed final notes.
Clarinetist Edward Palanker, a coordinator of the concert series, explored the subtle, sensual sound-scape of Debussy's "PremiM-hre rapsodie" in sweet-toned phrases. Pianist Mary Woehr's partnering was equally effective.
Mulligan tackled Mendelssohn's F major Violin Sonata with mixed results. There were frayed edges along the way, especially in the slow movement, but the violinist's confident, colorful scampering in the finale commanded respect. He had exceptional support from pianist Eric Conway, who made the most of the martial flourishes in the opening movement and offered crystalline articulation in that perpetual motion close.
The program opened with a very early work by Benjamin Britten, the "Phantasy" for oboe and strings from 1932, written when he was not yet 20. Beginning with an arresting, ghostly march that comes out of nowhere and returns at the end to fade away into the same distant reaches, the piece could use more thematic interest in the middle. But the composer's sure hand at instrumental coloring comes through clearly. Oboist Joseph Turner played vibrantly; he was ably complemented by violinist James Umber, violist Noah Chaves and cellist Kristin Ostling.
Chamber Music by Candlelight continues at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 with Mozart's Clarinet Quintet and works by Amy Beach, Niels Gade and others at Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul Street, Baltimore. Admission is free. For more information, call 410-889-6819.