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Themeless Variations 

This time, the Winter Chamber Festival trades unity for diversity.

In devising the annual Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival, cellist Peter Rejto seeks inspiration wherever he can find it. This year, it looks like he took the advice of the Talking Heads: Stop making sense.

Not that Rejto is about to plunge chamber-music mavens into a week of chaos. It's just that with this, his ninth festival with the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, Rejto has given up the effort to unify the five major concerts with any sort of nationalistic theme. Past festivals have mixed in strong doses of either American, Czech, French, Russian or even Latin American music. This year it'll just be music without any adjective other than "good."

"It'll be interesting to see if people think this festival needs a theme," Rejto said last week from his home in Ohio, where he teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory. "I find it unbelievably restrictive to design something that's really interesting around a theme. A few great pieces stand out, and then you have to start looking at things that aren't so great."

Rejto has nothing to apologize for. Past programs, if they haven't been overloaded with bona fide masterpieces, have at least been consistently interesting, demonstrating that there's plenty of worthy music, new and old, beyond the standard works for string quartet and piano trio.

Still, the cellist does express remorse for what he regards as his past sins, particularly 2000's tapas platter of Mediterranean and Latin American music.

"I was disappointed in that one," he said. "It felt like a hodge-podge--too many pieces, too many players, not enough pieces that were good. It was unbelievably frustrating for me. That's when I started to go on the warpath about themes."

So this year's festival offers a mere 20 pieces performed by 16 musicians, including Rejto and the American String Quartet. Of course, that just counts the five main concerts March 3-10, and ignores whatever surprises are in store at the gala dinner and recital March 9.

The fare is mostly Franco-Austro-Germanic. A mini Francis Poulenc festival lies embedded in the major attractions, including the 20th-century Frenchman's Violin Sonata, Oboe Sonata and Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano--this coming shortly after Arizona Opera's production last weekend of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Toss in a few works by Poulenc's compatriots Gabriel Fauré, Darius Milhaud and César Franck (the latter actually a Belgian, meaning a French attitude without benefit of French culture), and you have a nice Gallic lightness to contrast with the heavier fare. The weight is provided by Mozart (three pieces, including the Quintet for Piano and Winds), Mendelssohn, Schubert (the beloved "Trout" Quintet), Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn and Schoenberg (his early, hyper-romantic Transfigured Night in its original string sextet version).

For variety, Rejto has plugged in a couple of very accessible 20th-century pieces by Zoltán Kodály and Benjamin Britten, and two 21st-century works commissioned specifically for this festival: a string quartet by Curt Cacioppo, played by the American String Quartet, and a duo for violin and viola by Augusta Read-Thomas, played by sisters Ani and Ida Kavafian.

Truth to tell, Rejto didn't find this festival easy to program even without the strictures of a theme.

"It's like playing chess," he said. "You move one piece, and it affects two other moves. I never know how these things are going to come together."

He started with the idea of having the American String Quartet anchor Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, and then added the Kavafians to the core players, and since they most often perform with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, that brought along one more player and a certain focus of musical interests.

Rejto had asked Ida Kavafian and McDermott to play the early, appealing Violin Sonata of John Corigliano, something McDermott had never done before. By the time the pianist got around to looking at her part and realized how monstrously difficult it is, she was embroiled in a recording project and realized she'd never master the music in time. So she and Kavafian have fallen back on the Poulenc sonata, which they already know well.

"It's always hard to persuade people to play pieces that are new to them under these conditions," Rejto said. "We do more full-fledged concerts in a shorter time than most festivals attempt. This is a very high-pressure festival, even under the best of circumstances."

That's why Rejto tends to rely on musicians he knows well and can rehearse efficiently with. Not every one is a pal, though; consider, for example, hornist Kate Gascoigne. "She's not somebody I know terribly well," he said, "but I heard her at a festival I was in in Vermont, and her playing was magnificent."

Rejto keeps a little black book of musicians like Gascoigne and pieces he might assemble for future festivals, which relieves a little pressure from the planning. At any rate, he anticipates sweating a little less this year. "Without a theme, this one might be a little more relaxing," he said.

He won't have long to curl up in the La-Z-Boy with his cello, though. He's already been planning next year's festival--and yes, it will have a theme.

"The Prazak Quartet will be the anchor group, so we'll have a Czech theme," he said, his voice betraying no fear. "That's a slam-dunk, because there are thousands of great Czech pieces."

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