You could call it a Sunday service, but if there was any sermon involved, it was largely unspoken.
Chesapeake Music’s “Salute to Don Buxton” – presented by a stellar organization that would not exist without him – reminded me of religious services in the same space that was once the Ebenezer Methodist Church sanctuary, except that this event seemed personally inspired rather than worshipfully so. No choir, no organist at any Sunday service I can recall attending as a teen or tween in the late ’50s/early ’60s could hold a celestial candle to what I experienced on behalf of Buxton, retiring 38 years after he and his wife Meredith founded Chesapeake Music. (Full disclosure: What did I know when I was 10 or 13? Mostly, I couldn’t wait for it to be done.)
But in this case, much of the near-capacity audience on a rainy Sunday afternoon hung around long after the last note played, not so much for the champagne toast in Buxton’s honor but for a chance to speak to him, shake a hand, or just exchange memories with others about the musical legacy he has made possible.
So while the video tribute to Buxton that opened the program was a collective testament – from founding musicians to financial collaborators who contributed to the cultural landscape of a primarily rural mid-Shore region – the music was worth more than any thousand words I might bore you with. I’ll try to illuminate instead economically.
The concert, as billed, consisted of the Robert Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, which pianist Diane Walsh, who has played in Chesapeake Music’s Chamber Music Festival since its second season, described the piece as a complicated but – oh, let’s not give away the ending – romance. Robert – we suspect no one called him Bobby unless it was Claire – wanted to marry the young woman forbidden by her father to wed. The challenge went all the way to the courts, which, due to the slow wheels of justice, took the case almost to Claire’s 21st birthday, when her father’s blessing was legally irrelevant. Doesn’t sound so romantic, does it? But it’s just such stuff of life that inspires artistic masterpieces.
As played by Walsh on piano, and Marcy Rosen on cello, who performed in the inaugural Chesapeake Music Chamber Festival, and now co-artistic director Catherine Cho on violin, and fellow festival veteran Todd Phillips on viola, the performance of Schumann’s quartet was brought to vibrant new heights. I’ve always thought Schumann’s chamber works – not without exception – are superior to his complete symphonies. The emotion evoked in this piece attempts to transcend the complexity of what the composer must have felt in creating it.
From the start, you can feel the urgency of what the couple felt for each other, tempered only by the paternal opposition they faced. Notes of despair emerge in the second movement, particularly on the cello, but later, in defiance, they are expressed on violin/viola determination. The third movement’s opening love-lost lamentation mellows into an irresistible romantic heart-plucking cello expectation. As promised by musical foreplay, the finale is more assertive and triumphant.
Not satisfied with this 30-minute tribute to Buxton, the quartet rewarded their standing ovation with an encore, Dvorok’s Quartet in D-flat Major, which together with the Schumann would comprise at least full symphonic or quartet concert post- or pre-intermission concert.
This brings us to Don Buxton’s other significant contributions to classical musical resonance on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was also the first musical director of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, now the only such professional symphony orchestra south of Wilmington in this region, and by all means worthy of his progeny, now led by Grammy-winning maestro Michael Renner.
Fittingly, Buxton got — almost — the last word on stage when he asked his wife Meredith somewhere in the Ebenezer audience: “What’s the one word you never taught me to say?” Her answer: “No!” In this case, I feel sure from the full-house laughter it produced that Meredith Buxton would agree that her “no” was in no way a negative.
Steve Parks is a retired New York critic and editor now living in Easton.