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The Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival doesn't really have a theme--or does it?

Cellist Peter Rejto, the artistic director of the renowned Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival, knows how to talk about a festival's theme--even when there isn't one.

This year's festival is the 12th such presentation by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music in as many years. It will begin Sunday and feature five concerts of standard and not-so-standard fare at the Tucson Convention Center's Leo Rich Theater. The Los Angeles Piano Quartet (of which Rejto is a member) and the Miami String Quartet will serve as the festival's anchor ensembles, mixing it up with eight other outstanding musicians from around the country.

So what about that theme, Mr. Rejto?

"It's a theme-less festival with lots of potential themes," he said recently on the telephone from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he teaches.

Certainly, a celebration of Brahms could be one of those themes, Rejto said. There's a major work by that composer on every one of the festival's programs, from the F-minor Piano Quintet (March 6) to the G-major Sextet (March 13). David Shifrin, an acclaimed clarinetist who until recently directed the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, will team up with the Miami String Quartet to perform Brahms' B-minor Quintet (March 11).

Rejto pointed to an unusual emphasis on percussion as another possible theme. A quick look at the festival's lineup reveals three percussion-filled works: Martinu's Quartet for Cello, Clarinet, Horn and Snare Drum (March 9), which Rejto, who'll be one of the performers, described as "a wild piece"; the premiere of Jeffery Cotton's Meditation, Rhapsody and Bacchanal, a duo for violin and percussion (March 11); and Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (also March 11).

"The whole (percussion) thing was born out of the idea of doing the Bartók again," Rejto said. He added that Xak Bjerken and Miri Yampolski, the two pianists for the Tucson performance of the sonata, have an intimate knowledge of it. Their first performance of the work, which happened some years ago, brought them together musically for the first time, and they later got married. "A month ago, they played it in Israel," Rejto said. "They're both great pianists."

Bartók, whose music is characterized by great rhythmic verve, set a standard for the writing of finely scored percussion parts. His sonata (1937) represents, along with his six string quartets, some of the best chamber music he produced in his all-too-short career. In it, two pianists team up with two percussionists, who play an array of instruments, including three kettledrums, a xylophone, two side drums, cymbals, a suspended cymbal, a bass drum, a triangle and a tam-tam. The work's three movements experiment "fruitfully with the varied percussive sonorities" of both the pianos and the percussion instruments, one commentator has noted. The two percussionists in the Tucson performance of the Bartók sonata will be Svetoslav Stoyanov and Gary Cook, an instructor at the University of Arizona who called it "one of the greatest pieces of chamber music literature" from the 20th century.

As for Cotton's Meditation, to be performed by Stoyanov and violinist Joseph Lin, it will illustrate yet another mini-theme of this year's festival: the performance of brand-new music. It will be one of three Friends-commissioned pieces to be premiered at the festival.

Meditation came about after Lin expressed an interest in something like a violin sonata--but without a sonata's usual instrumentation, which usually includes a solo instrument and piano. Cotton then came up with the idea of writing a duo for violin and percussion, and a colorful, diverse three-movement work that lasts about 14 minutes was the result.

Cotton, in program notes on his Web site, has described Meditation's structure "as a wedge, starting out quietly and ending with a raucous bang. But the inclusion of a meditation at one end and a bacchanal at the other was intended to alert the listener that my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek."

Listeners can also expect to see and hear the Bulgarian tapan, a bass drum-like instrument that astonished Cotton with its "joyous, boisterous energy" and its wide range of sounds.

The two other Friends-commissioned pieces to be premiered at the festival will include Lee Hoiby's Sonnets and Soliloquies (William Shakespeare), for string quartet and soprano, with singer Jennifer Foster teaming up with the Miami String Quartet on March 8, and Steven Stucky's Piano Quartet, to be performed by the Los Angeles Piano Quartet March 13.

In Sonnets, Stucky is again turning to Foster to explore Shakespeare through music (she previously sang his setting of the "Balcony Scene"). Mark Shulgasser, Hoiby's librettist, writes that Sonnets raises yet another question about gender as it relates to Shakespeare.

"In the two sonnet settings," he concludes, "Shakespeare's own voice, emblematic for centuries of universality, certainly belongs to both genders. In general the Sonnets tend to treat gendered particularities as cavalier fancies, continually trumped by the more powerful relations of status, family, age, and talent."

Stucky teaches at Cornell University. His Piano Quartet "is in several sections (played continuously), and these alternate among several distinct musical 'personalities': fast, forceful, and angular; slow and lyrical; very fast, light, and scherzo-like," he wrote in an e-mail message. "The piece switches sections often, so there is always something a little different just around the corner."

Stucky, also a violist, says he grew up playing chamber music avidly. As a result, the piano quartet is "like home to me, not like a challenge."

"The challenge is always writing good music for any combination of instruments, whether it's solo flute or symphony orchestra," he e-mailed. "I don't worry about how well I've written for these four instruments, but instead about how strong my ideas are."

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