True, none of the selections were cerebrally avant-garde. They tended to be Latin American, music that is typically propelled by engaging rhythms, or Italian, full of traditional lyricism. They weren't trifles, though, and each work enjoyed a top-notch performance from musicians who were, in many cases, confronting the scores for the first time.
Perhaps most importantly, the festival offered two works commissioned especially for the series.
Brazilian composer Raimundo Penaforte came through with Quartetice for four guitars and percussion. Penaforte himself played the small battery of Latin American noisemakers, in the company of the splendid Los Angeles Guitar Quartet; his percussion brought welcome color to the monochromatic ensemble. The four movements are largely inspired by Brazilian dances, but display sophisticated craftsmanship.
Even more impressive was Stephen Paulus' Exotic Etudes for Viola and Piano Quartet -- that's piano, violin, viola and cello. The captivating work occasionally evokes Shostakovich or Debussy but is never derivative, and relies on an unmistakably American rhythmic ingenuity. Paulus' most daring stroke is an unabashedly gorgeous movement called "Melodious"; it's no longer necessary for a work to be abstruse to be taken seriously.
Violist Cynthia Phelps and the festival's ad hoc piano quartet played it all with a passion and panache that would be rare even for a standing ensemble in the standard repertory. Indeed, the two dozen musicians featured during the week invariably performed like old friends.
Not to slight the anchor group, the fine American String Quartet, but this year's standouts were individuals. Soprano Jennifer Foster adopted a smoldering sound for Falla's El Amor brujo, then became a lyric Italian singer in Respighi's Il Tromonto. Witty violinist Benny Kim and incisive pianist Lydia Artimiw also merit special praise.
The festival's only drawback was evident, ironically, in one of the most excitingly played pieces. Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence got a combustible performance, with excellently managed transitions and blistering codas. Otherwise, though, the strokes tended to be broad and efficient, lacking the nuance a full-time ensemble might have brought to the score. Limited rehearsal makes this inevitable for any festival. But if this is the low point, it's apparent the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival is starting from a remarkably high plateau.