Festival Chamber Music in Review

 Festival Chamber Music in Review
 Ayako Oshima, clarinet
David Jolley, horn
Yuri Funahashi, piano
Calvin Wiersma, violin
Theodore Arm, violin/viola
Ruth Sommers, cello/director
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
February 2, 2011

 Festival Chamber Music is a rotating group of enterprising top-notch New York musicians. They like to take time out from their busy lives as performers and teachers to present new and unfamiliar works in a variety of instrumental combinations, as well as staples of the standard repertoire. Founded in 1988 by its director, cellist Ruth Sommers, in Dobbs Ferry, the group moved in 1992 to New York City, where it performs an annual series of five concerts to sell-out audiences.

Its most recent program was of particular interest. It featured Beethoven’s popular Piano Quartet, Op. 16 in E-flat major in an excellent performance, and works by two virtually unknown Czech composers: the Quintet for piano, violin, cello , clarinet and horn, Op. 42 by Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900), written in 1893, and the String Trio by Gideon Klein (l9l9-l045), one of the so-called Holocaust composers, written in 1944. Fibich, though born in Prague, did not follow in the footsteps of his compatriots Smetana and Dvorak, the fathers of the Czech nationalist movement; rather, his music–though never openly derivative–is steeped in the Romantic German tradition. In the Quintet, Fibich’s compositional skill shows in his modulations (which use a lot of deceptive cadences), and in his ability to exploit and combine the instruments’ colors and timbres to best effect. The first and last of the Quintet’s four movements are in sonata form; the Scherzo, marked “with wild humor,” foreshadows Shostakovich in its acerbic sarcasm, but this is relieved by two cheerful Trios, a waltz and a polka. A solo piano passage leads back to the da capos. The Quintet’s centerpiece is the slow movement, a truly beautiful, long-breathing melody, stated first by the piano in solid and arpeggiated chords, then repeated with a florid violin obbligato. The work’s most pervasive characteristics are its democratic distribution of the solos, its unabashed romanticism, and its surging, soaring melodies; but the heart-on-sleeve quality of the music is so genuine that sentiment never lapses into sentimentality.

Gideon Klein already had several compositions to his credit when he was sent to Terezin in 1941. At 20, he must have been one of the youngest of the composers who perished in the Nazi death-camps, and, if this String Trio is any indication, also one of the most talented. A brilliant pianist, his ability to use the string instruments’ resources was remarkable. Though naturally still under the influence of contemporary stylistic trends, the Trio displays a personal voice and an astoundingly mature emotional range. Its three movements are all based on Moravian folksongs. The first and last are fast, skittish, jumpy, abrasive, and dissonant, often punctuated with Slavic and Hungarian off-beat rhythms; the last one ends in a Bartokian dance and a crash. The Trio’s core is the much longer, slow, middle movement: a set of variations of contrasting tempos, textures and characters that encompass defiance, grief and despair, leaving the listener shaken and heart-broken. Klein became one of Terezin’s heroes, organizing its musical and cultural activities. The Trio was written nine days before Klein’s deportation to Auschwitz; he died there a year later.

Heard at two rehearsals, the playing of this demanding program was excellent. Pianist Funahashi alternated imperceptibly between leading and supporting, always sensitive, never too loud; hornist Jolley and clarinetist Oshima were outstanding in their prominent roles. The Quintet had an almost orchestral sonority at times. The string players negotiated their often stratospheric parts with aplomb; cellist Sommers provided a firm foundation, violinist Wiersma was a strong leader in the Beethoven and Klein; Arm, doubling on violin and viola, had the courage to play the bigger instrument first, but kept his intonation intact – no mean feat.

These fine, adventuresome musicians deserve our admiration and gratitude for bringing these unjustly neglected works to our attention in such committed, persuasive performances.

New York Concert Review Round-Up for 2009-10

New York Concert Review Round-Up for 2009-10

Even the best-intentioned reporter cannot cover all the concerts of the New York season. Here are some highlights that got left behind

Two violinists presented spectacular recitals: Joshua Bell with his frequent partner Jeremy Denk, and Augustin Hadelich with the esteemed collaborative artist Rohan De Silva. Hadelich, making his New York debut, played in the Frick Collection’s intimate auditorium; Bell played in Carnegie Hall, whose size hardly suited his program of sonatas by Bach, Saint-Saëns, Schumann and Ravel. But his brilliant technique and glorious, intense tone came through, as did his elegance, romantic ardor, and passionate involvement. Hadelich, winner of the 2006 Indianapolis Violin Competition, is every inch a virtuoso. He reveled in the fireworks of Ysaÿe’s “Ballade” and Saraste’s “Carmen Fantasy,” and filled Prokofiev’s second Sonata with sunshine and charm.

The American String Quartet played Beethoven’s daunting Op. 127 with admirable technical and tonal control, poise and expressiveness. With violist Michael Tree, Brahms’ G major Quintet sounded rich, romantic and exuberant; the Finale had true Gypsy abandon. The Orion Quartet also performed Brahms in G-major (the Sextet, with violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Barbara Mallow), along with Beethoven, Bartók, Mozart and Smetana. Perhaps influenced by the prevailing fashion, they have been over-projecting recently, but their playing is always deeply felt and beautiful.

The Tokyo Quartet continued its Beethoven cycle with a warm, serene performance of Op. 59 No. 2, notable for the seamless continuity of its lines. Formed 20 years ago, the Leipzig Quartet displayed remarkable transparency in Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet; wrenching grief in Mendelssohn’s F-minor Quartet; longing and passion in Janácek’s “Intimate Letters.” The Panocha Quartet, founded in 1968 at the Prague Conservatory, is distinguished by its limpid tone, simplicity, and unaffected eloquence. An early Mozart Quartet was lovely; Martinu’s cheerful No. 7 (1947) incorporated both his native Czech and jazzy American idioms. In Dvorák’s great Op. 106, the players relished the luscious melodies and spiky Slavic rhythms while weaving a tapestry of independent voices.

Festival Chamber Music, a rotating group of freelance musicians, presented an unusual program in delightful performances: Milhaud’s humorous Suite for clarinet, violin and piano; Beethoven’s lyrical, exuberant Trio for clarinet, cello and piano Op. 38, transcribed from his Septet; songs by Amy Beach with violin and cello obbligatos, and Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock.” Cellist/director Ruth Sommers, violinist Theodore Arm and soprano Amy Cofield Williamson were excellent; pianist Hélène Jeanney and clarinetist Charles Neidich, the program’s busiest participants, captured the music’s diverse moods and styles with soloistic brilliance and collaborative sensitivity.

To celebrate his 85th birthday, Pierre Boulez conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two concerts featuring Béla Bartók: the Concerto for two pianos and percussion, splendidly performed by Pierre–Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, and “Bluebeard’s Castle,” sung with mesmerizing impact (in Hungarian) by Michelle DeYoung and Falk Struckmann. The orchestra’s principal flutist Mathieu Dufour played Marc-André Dalbavie’s Concerto brilliantly; the orchestra showed its virtuosity and wonderful sound in works by Ravel, Boulez, and Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

Boulez shared conducting duties with Daniel Barenboim when Carnegie Hall invited the Vienna Philharmonic to open its season with three concerts. The orchestra sounded glorious; intonation and balance were perfect; the playing was rich and homogeneous, yet clear. Except for two Beethoven symphonies, the programs departed from the orchestra’s usual fare with substantial works by Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez. In the first concert, Barenboim’s “Pastoral” Symphony was expansively lyrical; juxtaposing the lush, sensuous finale of Wagner’s “Tristan” with Schoenberg’s Variations demonstrated the birth of a new style from the ashes of the old one. A noisy exodus of disgruntled listeners midway caused Barenboim to announce an encore “for those who stayed” – a fast and furious Johann Strauss Polka.