Lawrence Toppman

American Chamber Players dig up classical gold, forgotten gems

The Ford Mustang, 1964. The Amana countertop microwave oven, 1967. Diet Coke, 1982.

Sometimes consumers don’t know they need a product until it’s tossed into the marketplace. That’s the deal with American Chamber Players, who have been on a musical expedition for more than three decades and unearthed pieces audiences never knew they’d want.

Case in point: ACP’s gig April 15 at Halton Theatre, which caps the Charlotte Concerts season. After intermission comes comfort food: Franz Schubert’s Octet for winds and strings, an hour of relaxed enjoyment.

Before the break, the quintet unveils French rarities. You may know Maurice Duruflé from his Requiem, but you’ve probably never heard Prelude, Recitative and Variations for flute, viola and piano. Unless you play the flute yourself – or lived in pre-World War II France – it’s a safe bet you’ve never heard anything by Philippe Gaubert.

The reason people still listen to Bach fugues is not that they’re intellectually fascinating. The music grabs them.

ACP violist Miles Hoffman

Miles Hoffman thinks you should.

“The problem with some (musicians) is that they think, ‘I am going to educate these people.’ Our goal is to play satisfying concerts. You have to listen with slightly different ears at times, but we play pieces we want to do again and again, pieces that are compelling on first hearing. ‘Three Watercolors’ is one of those.” (Gaubert scored it for flute, cello and piano.)

The man who doesn’t want to educate you is, in fact, an educator. Besides being ACP’s violist, he did a musical commentary for 13 years on National Public Radio’s “Performance Today.” He now fills that role on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and wrote “The NPR Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z.”

Yet he thinks of music in an emotional sense, not a cerebral one.

“The reason people still listen to Bach fugues is not that they’re intellectually fascinating,” he says. “The music grabs them. You have one emotion when Villanova wins the game on a buzzer-beater, and you have a different emotion when you listen to the Schubert two-cello quintet. But both affect you deeply.”

Everyone in ACP teaches, tours as a soloist or has other outside jobs. They come together 10 to 20 times a year to play in the core group of Hoffman, cellist Stephen Balderston, violinist Joanna Maurer, flutist Sara Stern and pianist Anna Stoytcheva. Clarinetist Loren Kitt, who’ll play the Schubert here, often joins in.

“This is a tough business,” says Hoffman. “We’re competing with 50 string quartets, so we never know how often we’ll be engaged. That’s one reason we try to put on fascinating programs: We hope to be reinvited.”

The ACP just scored a permanent, season-long gig in Greenville, S.C. Hoffman and his cohorts have put together the inaugural Peace Chamber Program at Peace Center. They’ll kick it off May 12 with “A Celebration of Chamber Music,” and ACP members and guests will play four gigs throughout the year.

The group seldom has turnover: Except for Balderston, who joined when the previous cellist moved to the Beaux Arts Trio, the others have played together for more than a decade. When they need extra musicians, they don’t hold auditions; they call on friends.

“That’s what drew me to chamber music,” says Hoffman, whose early entry points were Schubert’s string quintet and Mozart’s piano trios. “It’s incredibly fun to play. It’s about giving pleasure to the performers as well as the listeners. I grew up playing (sports), and I love the physical aspect of making music.

“When the group’s playing (a great piece), I am moved more by what I hear my colleagues doing than what I’m doing myself. I am the luckiest guy to be in the middle of that sound.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

American Chamber Players

When: Friday.

Where: Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave.

Tickets: $30-$50.

Details: 704-330-6534; tix.cpcc.edu.

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