Now in its third season, ChamberFest Cleveland occurs over a two week period in June during a musical “dead zone”, between the end of the Cleveland Orchestra Severance Hall season, and before the orchestra’s summer appearances at the Blossom Festival. The founders of the festival, Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinet Franklin Cohen and his daughter Diana Cohen, concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, gather around them top-notch local and other more geographically dispersed musical friends for several weeks to rehearse and present thoughtfully curated concerts around an overall theme (this year, “THREE!”) that combine familiar masterpieces with more unusual, often contemporary, works. The concerts are presented in bars, barns, churches and art galleries, as well as more traditional concert halls. The artists mingle freely with audience members before and after concerts, and the atmosphere of informal communication is evident.

Sunday afternoon’s concert was an excellent example of imaginative programming in an unusual setting, a barn at the historic Dunham Tavern Museum in Cleveland’s Midtown area. The tavern, established in 1824, was a stop on the Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit post road, and is the oldest building in Cleveland still standing on its original site. The barn, of recent vintage replacing the original, turned out to be an excellent venue, with its high, beamed ceilings and wooden walls. Natural light flooded in through the windows.

Although the concerts are rehearsed and presented over a short period of time, there was never a sense of these being “pick-up” ensembles. In each of the works on Sunday’s concert, ensemble was precise and musicianship at a very high level. One would be hard-pressed to detect that these were not musicians playing together regularly.

Mozart’s Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello in F major, K.368b, featured oboist Alex Klein, who was the principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony from 1995-2002 and now pursues a solo and chamber music career. Along with violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Julie Albers, Klein gave a sparkling performance of what is in many ways an oboe concerto in chamber music form. All four musicians  expertly traded off the thematic material in the first movement. The relatively short Adagio second movement, opening with a long note in the oboe, dissolving into filigree, is like a Mozart aria, in its gorgeous melodies. Each of the performers knew when to take the lead and then fade back into ensemble. The third movement, Rondeau, an allegro full of virtuosity for all four players, with cascades of scales, was not just a showpiece, but displayed beautiful contrast and the tension and release of Mozart’s harmonic structure. The balances throughout were well-judged.

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Quartet for clarinet, violin, viola and cello is an austerely beautiful work whose thematic material is based on the opening solo clarinet passages that feature that most basic of musical structures, the interval of a third, in both its minor and major configurations. Franklin Cohen played the lyrical clarinet part, with Amy Schwartz Moretti and Dimitri Murrath returning, and Gabriel Cabezas on cello. Although in four movements, the first three are in total duration shorter than the fourth. The movements are character pieces, beginning with a Notturno in which the instruments enter with increasingly desolate phrases. The layering of the instrumental lines into complex textures is resolved later, in a long note in the cello’s low register, contrasted with the violin, in its highest range, and the viola in short, descending two-note phrases. A short Scherzo featured the three strings in irregular unison phrases, breaking apart when the clarinet enters. The players highlighted the dynamic contrasts in this mostly very soft movement, making the sudden forte passages even more stark. The third movement Serenade was a grotesque waltz surreally similar to the sound world of “Valse de Chopin” in Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. The final movement, Abschied, followed without pause, in which some of the preceding musical material is heard again and further developed. This was a gripping performance of a work deserving to be better known.

Schubert’s String Quartet, no. 15 in G major, D.887 closed the program, with Yura Lee and David Bowlin, violins, and Mr Murrath and Ms Albers returning. The opening long crescendo on a held note that suddenly disintegrates into sharply dotted rhythms gave the sense that this was going to be a performance full of drama, a perception borne out through the rest of the performance. Moments of serenity contrasted with stormy passages in the first movement. Julie Albers’ playing of the cello solo in the second movement was handsome, before Schubert rudely interrupts with a violent section. But at the end, the solo returns to repeat its lyricism. The scherzo had the appropriate airiness, with a nostalgic waltz as the Trio section. The last rondo movement was in the style of a tarantella, alternating between major and minor tonalities. At the brilliant conclusion, the performers were given a well-deserved ovation by the capacity crowd.