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Friends of Vienna Redivivus

A much-loved concert series, once thought extinct, begins a new season this Sunday

When Buffalo-based pianist Claudia Hoca ended her recital at the Unity Church on Delaware Avenue last April with a stirring performance of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, it seemed likely that the performance of that piece would be the last work ever performed in the Friends of Vienna series. After a successful run of 32 years, the administrative duties had lately become too burdensome for the board of directors. Longtime board president Paul Guenther announced that the recital by Hoca, who had performed at one of the very first concerts in the series soon after graduating from the renowned Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, would conclude the series.

Some music lovers, however, felt that the series was too important to the local classical music community to just come to an end. Last July, Buffalo News classical music critic Mary Kunz Goldman interviewed Guenther for an article about the history of the organization that included a call for prospective volunteers to take over. After reading the article, soprano Mary Kay Atlas contacted Guenther and offered to serve as the new artistic director of the Friends of Vienna. Atlas, who holds a master of music degree in vocal performance from the University at Buffalo, is a music teacher in the Buffalo Public School system. Using her many contacts developed over her years as a soloist and a member of several choruses, most recently with Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Atlas quickly assembled a rejuvenated board.

“The Friends of Vienna has been too important a part of my life and the lives of so many other classical musicians and singers in the Buffalo area to just let it fade away,” Atlas said in a recent interview. “The Friends of Vienna concerts have also always provided high-quality events with the lowest ticket prices in town, and that is a tradition that we intend to continue.”

Despite a busy professional career, Atlas, who is also the mother of a three-year-old daughter, knew that she had to find the time to carry on a wonderful old world tradition. “Edith Horowitz, a Jewish refugee who had been a singer with the Vienna Volksoper, founded the Friends of Vienna along with her husband and others, including recently retired board member Herta Wittkugel, who had served on the board since the group’s inception in 1976,” Atlas said. “I feel that they have created a genuine legacy that it is now our duty to carry on.”

The 2009-2010 season of the Friends of Vienna, like last year’s season, will consist of four concerts, with plans to expand the number of events in future years. All concerts take place at 3:30pm on Sunday afternoons, at the Unity Church, 1243 Delaware Avenue, which has ample free parking. As in the past, a traditional Weiner Café will follow each concert, featuring coffee and pastries as well as an opportunity to meet the artists.

This Sunday, October 4, the series opener features the Amberg Quartet, which is one of the rarest of classical groupings: a piano wind quartet. On December 6, the Niagara Frontier Brass Quintet will present a holiday concert of season favorites, along with a few surprises. On February 21, the young soprano Emily Tworek Helenbrook appears in a program of lieder, with pianist David Bond, that will also include Schubert’s beloved “Shepherd on the Rock,” with John Fullam on clarinet. Fullam will also perform with Helenbrook in the Three Vocalises for Soprano and Clarinet, the last composition from the pen of the master of 20th-century English music, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Details of the fourth and final chamber music concert in this season’s series had yet to be finalized at press time.

According to Fullam, the Amberg Quartet—Betsy Reed (flute), Fullam (clarinet), Paul Schlossman (oboe), and Persis Vehar (piano)—enjoyed an instant rapport when they first played together. “We were a natural fit from the beginning,” he said, “with all our egos well meshed to produce what I think is an extraordinary ensemble sound. The quartet has been both one of the easiest and best groups with whom I have ever played.”

The group’s first problem was finding sufficient repertoire for the unusual instrumental ensemble. Fullam noted that the only widely known work for this particular instrumental combination is the Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs, Op. 79 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Luckily, Paul Schlossman has turned out to be something of a Sherlock Holmes of musicology, unearthing forgotten or rarely played works, including the 1923 Suite by Danish composer Johan Amberg, who also provided the inspiration for the group’s name. A quick internet check failed to turn up any recordings of works by Amberg, which according to Fullam is a real shame. “Amberg’s Suite is a more interesting work than the Saint-Saëns, composed in a tonal, though post-romantic idiom,” he says.

Also on the program is Schumann’s popular Fantasiestücke op.73 as well as Four Dances by the contemporary British composer Christopher Ball (b.1936), which Fullam describes as the most technically demanding work for his instrument on the program.“Ball is a wonderful clarinetist himself, and when he wrote the piece, which is very melodic, he gave himself a genuine workout.”

Another way to solve the lack of appropriate repertoire is to have a composer write new material for your group. Having Persis Vehar, composer-in-residence at Canisius College, in the group is definitely a plus. Fullam’s professional relationship with Vehar goes back over a dozen years. Ms. Vehar has composed several works for Fullam, most notably the well-received City of Light Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, which was premiered by the BPO under the baton of music director JoAnn Falletta in 2007. A recording of that performance, along with the three other works by Vehar for clarinet, will soon be released on CD by the Buffalo-based Mark Recording Service. Vehar’s The Seasons received its premiere earlier this year, but Sunday’s performance will be the first by all the artists for which the work was written. This beautifully melodic transversal of the four seasons finds the music reflecting the entire course of a year in nature, with the ever-varying musical moods captured by the descriptive titles of movements such as “Frogs & Fireflies” and “Swift Waters with Birds and Hepaticas.”

John Fullam, for one, is very happy that the tradition represented by the Friends of Vienna is continuing. “I have always very much enjoyed the closeness of the audience at these performances,” he noted. “The relaxed atmosphere allows you to play at the top of your form, and that is a very necessary part of the performing experience.”

Subscription tickets for the four concert series are $25. Individual tickets ar $8 for adults, $6 for students, and $1 for children 12 and under. For more information, visit or call 838-3730.

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