ChamberFest Cleveland continued their winning ways for the penultimate concert in this year’s festival, giving a fresh take on the ritual of the concert experience as well as performing Tan Dun’s ritualistic Ghost Opera with brand new choreography.

As the audience entered Kulas Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music, they found intriguing groups of instruments set around the stage. The six players for the first half of the program entered together downstage at the beginning, at which the stage curtain closed behind them and stage and house lights were dimmed to complete darkness. The stage lights then came up focused downstage center on three percussionists (Alex Cohen, Scott Christian, and Luke Rinderknecht) who began the program with John Cage’s Amores III. Trio Seven Wood Blocks, not Chinese. The sounds were delicate and soft, the rhythms tranquil. If one can conceive of “whispering” percussion, this was it. At the end of the movement, the lights went down, and a few seconds later came up again on a second more elaborate percussion grouping the same players for Brazilian Alexandre Lunsqui’s Shi (“Food”) for an unusual, eclectic mixture of objects used percussively: among others, threaded metal rods rubbed together; tuning forks; bamboo place mats “strummed”; barbeque metal grills. The charming and fun piece had elements of humor and seeming competition between the players.

Again at the end of Lusqui’s work, the lights dimmed and in darkness the players moved to the third set-up, stage right, for a wall-shaking performance of the third movement of Serbian-born Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic’s Trio per uno, op. 27. Each of the three players had two tom-toms and a snare drum, played often in unison in increasing complex rhythmic patterns, and also requiring the players to shout at various times while they are playing. The overall aspect is that of Brazilian carnival drumming, or, perhaps more familiar to American listeners, the drum lines of the best American collegiate marching bands. But then, it abruptly ended, and we were plunged back into darkness.

When the lights came back up, the percussionists were seated primly against the stage wall, and the other three musicians, Yehonatan Berick (violin), Robert deMaine (cello), and Roman Rabinovich (piano), launched without pause into a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s Trio no. 2 for Violin, Cello and Piano in E minor, Op.67.  From the first pianissimo cello harmonics, followed by sinuous themes in the violin and piano, the first movement was a somber tribute to Shostakovich’s close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, whose sudden death prompted the composition of the trio in 1943. Later the trio turns rambunctious, with material in the style of folk songs. The fourth movement was memorable in the commitment of the players to the many effects required by the composer: pizzicato, strumming the strings, a thunderous and urgent climax, followed by delicately rippling arpeggios in the piano and long melodies in the strings. At the end, there was a standing ovation for all of the first-half performers. Credit is also do to the presenters for experimenting with the concert experience, drawing diverse works into a creative whole.

ChamberFest Cleveland collaborated with local dance company Groundworks Dance Theater, to present Tan Dan’s Ghost Opera, for string quartet and pipa, with water, stones, paper and metal. Groundworks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara created original choreography for the five movement (or, “acts”, as identified by the composer). Felise Bagley, Noelle Cotler, Damien Highfield, Gary Lenington, and Annika Sheaff were the excellent dancers. Tan requires the musicians to move around the stage, sometimes while playing, to splash water in large clear basins of water, to speak, shout, and sing in English and Chinese. The score recalls the music of Bach, words of Shakespeare, as well as Chinese death rituals and folk music to create his scenario of communication with spirits. The pipa player, Gao Hong, not only has a virtuoso instrumental part, but her singing connects the western instruments with the Eastern cultural references. At the end of the opera, a large paper scroll suspended from the stage ceiling is shaken to banish ghosts symbolically, and as a unique sound source. The intrepid musicians were Amy Schwartz Moretti and Diana Cohen, violins; Yura Lee, viola; Gabriel Cabezas, cello; and Gao Hong, pipa. They seemed to have absorbed Tan Dun’s intense style into their own musical personae, making the music seem natural and beautiful.

It was a worthy experiment; however, Shimotakahara’s choreography created a second, competing layer on top of the ritual already specified by Tan in his score. Unlike a traditional ballet in which the musicians accompany the dancers, the choreography in this work created additional visual and conceptual elements for each of the movements. Yet there was no observable effort to integrate the dancers into Tan Dun’s scenario nor to incorporate the performing musicians musicians into the dance layer. They were two simultaneous entities traveling along parallel paths. Tan’s music and ritual are subtle, minimalistic; Shimotakahara’s choreography – fine though it was – at least for me, intruded on that subtlety.