The Catalyst String Quartet in Review

The Catalyst String Quartet
Karla Donehew Perez, violin
Christopher Jenkins, viola
Karlos Rodriguez, cello
The American Bible Society; New York, NY
April 5, 2013

In sponsoring this superb concert by The Catalyst String Quartet in the Conference Center of The American Bible Society’s New York headquarters, Musica da Camara continued its policy of presenting performances in non-traditional concert venues. Even though the room was fairly large, the fact that there was no stage and both audience and performers were on the same level made for a more intimate chamber music experience. All the members of the quartet are top Laureates and alumni of the Sphinx Competition, an annual competition for young black and Latino string players. That the Sphinx Organization thinks highly of these players is shown by the fact that their quartet is called “A Sphinx Ensemble.”

First we heard “Sturm,” a work by one of the quartet’s violinists, Jesse Montgomery. Written in 2006 for string quintet, it was arranged for quartet in 2008 and again revised for The Catalyst String Quartet in 2012. Very well constructed, this was a great opener. The beginning melody, especially its first three notes, served as the basis for much of the work’s melodic material. And I loved the strumming pizzicati which permeated the piece. The performers’ rhythmic energy, their polyphonic clarity and tight ensemble–playing were to continue throughout the evening.

With spoken comments, Ms. Montgomery then introduced Osvaldo Golijov’s “Tenebrae.” She demonstrated the sound of sul ponticello (bowing close to the violin’s bridge which creates a glassy sound and emphasizes the higher harmonics) and told us that the score instructs her to tune the violin’s G-string down a third. The use of sul ponticello added to otherworldly character of this work, and the lowered G-string darkened the sound of the quartet–tenebrae is the Latin word for shadow. The quartet gave us a beautifully wrought, lucid and committed performance of this most moving composition. Each player shone, both as collaborators in a like-thinking ensemble and as lyric “soloists.” Both violinists, Karla Donehew Perez and Jesse Montgomery, spun out luscious melodies on their violin’s lowest string; violist Christopher Jenkins played what sounded like Hebraic chants with soulful mournfulness; and cellist Karlos Rodriguez sailed around the cello’s high register with ease. (He would attain stratospheric heights in the concert’s second half.)

The last work on the first half was one that few in the audience have heard in its entirety, Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Opus 11. But most people are familiar with the arrangement for string orchestra of the quartet’s second movement, the “Adagio for Strings.” Surrounding this beloved lyrical movement are two much more dissonant and rhythmically complex pieces which the quartet played with as much assurance and ease as they did the lyrical adagio.  I was very impressed by the many string colors that the quartet created. (Most memorable were the passages in the first and second movements played with little or no vibrato.) In fact I was very impressed by every aspect of the quartet’s playing on the first half of this concert.

But I was awed by their performance of Alberto Ginastera’s fiendishly difficult String Quartet No.2, Opus 26! This work makes incredible technical demands, and the Catalyst players were up to all of them. One marveled at their perfect sense of ensemble during the unison passages and complex rhythms of the first movement. During the second movement, one luxuriated in the luscious tone of violist Christopher Jenkins. The mysterious sounds of the third movement, marked Presto magico, were flawlessly produced by using string techniques such as glissandi, harmonics, col legno (touching the strings with the wooden part of the bow) and the aforementioned sul ponticello. During the fourth movement cellist Karlos Rodriguez essayed his instrument’s highest notes with abandon. The concert was brought to a thrilling conclusion by the wild final movement, aptly marked furioso.

We were then treated to a delightful encore, the quartet’s arrangement of a children’s song from Puerto Rico, “El Coqui.” The audience left smiling.


The Klopotic-Pierce-Zoering Trio in Review

Light and Sound Presents
The Klopotic-Pierce-Zoering Trio
Julianne Klopotic, violin; Joshua Pierce, piano; Lawrence Zoering, cello
The Old Stone House; Brooklyn, New York
April 4, 2013

Founded by violinist Julianne Klopotic, Light and Sound bills itself as a “full-spectrum music performance series.” From the experimental to the classic, with jazz/rock and world music in between, Light and Sound is  in residence at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn for the 2013 season. The Old Stone House is a very intimate venue.  The feeling is very much like the 19th century salon, with seating for a small audience in immediate proximity to the performers.  The acoustics are remarkably good for a stone building constructed in the 17th century.  The small but enthusiastic audience was treated to a performance of Franz Schubert’s Piano Trios by the Klopotic-Pierce-Zoering Trio.

These three performers each have extensive and impressive resumes as soloists.  What always remains to be seen is the end result of joining such strong personalities as an ensemble. Sometimes it does occur that the whole is less than the sum of the parts, but I am pleased that this was not the case for this trio.

The first half was the Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 99 (D. 898). This work was started in 1827 and finished in 1828, the last year of Schubert’s life.  From the opening notes of the Allegro Moderato, the trio took an assertive and confident direction with its strong, full-bodied sound. For a small venue, this was especially bold, declarative playing, led ably by the energetic pianist Pierce. It was highly satisfying. Klopotic has a very rich, singing tone that captured the optimistic essence of this movement.  Zoering’s solo in the Andante poco mosso was played with artistry.  There were some rough edges at the end of this movement, but it did not spoil the overall effect. The Rondo finale was played with gusto to the last.

The performers are to be commended on their level of concentration considering the less-than-exemplary behavior on the part of some listeners. Several of the audience members were recording the performance with their mobile phones held in the air facing the performers, while one very enthusiastic listener “conducted” by waving her arms a la Leonard Bernstein throughout the entire work, at a distance of maybe three or four feet from Klopotic.  Perhaps one should be grateful for the fact that she actually kept an accurate beat!

The second half was dedicated to the nearly hour long Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 100 (D. 929). This work, completed in November 1827, was one of the few late works that Schubert actually heard played in his lifetime.  The second movement theme is well known for its prominent use in the movie Barry Lyndon; so much so that the association is as strong as the use of Mozart’s Andante movement of K. 467 is to the movie Elvira Madigan. The thematic material in this trio is extensively developed and requires tremendous attention to detail. The trio mostly met the challenge, continuing their bold approach in the opening Allegro. It was extroverted playing from completely involved players. The sublime Andante con moto was met with nodding heads and smiles from the audience, who no doubt felt the pleasure in recognition of the theme. The Scherzando was played with care but also some small issues of ensemble- -fleeting in the grand scheme of things. The Allegro Moderato finale proved the players indefatigable, with a tremendous drive that built in intensity, to the delight of the same audience members so moved by the finale of the B-flat trio. After the final E-flat chord sounded, there was a moment of silence, after which the bemused Pierce called out, “That’s it!” The audience responded with a loud, prolonged standing ovation that surely was gratifying to the trio. It was a fitting end to an excellent concert. They encored this program on April 6, 2013 at the same venue.

The Klopotic-Pierce-Zoering trio is a fine ensemble.  I do hope to have the opportunity to hear them again in the future.


Pro Musicis Concert in Review

Elsa Grether, violin
Delphine Bardin, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
February 15, 2012

 

As a result of winning the Pro Musicis International Award in Paris, the violin and piano duo Elsa Grether and Delphine Bardin (both born in France) made their Carnegie Hall debut on February 15th. They always played precisely together, with excellent rhythm and well-timed tempo changes, and their program was well thought-out. The Handel Sonata in D, Op. 1, No. 13 and the Brahms first Sonata opened the program fairly well, but the second half, comprised of Szymanowski’s “Mythes” and Debussy’s Sonata in G Minor, defined this duo as polished, adventurous and compelling.

The Handel Sonata, which was given an expressive approach, had lovely moments that were only marred by Grether’s occasionally uneven vibrato and a sense of pitch that was not completely accurate. The Handel and Brahms sonatas were sensitively played by pianist Bardin, but with the piano on full stick, it was sometimes difficult—here and elsewhere on the program—to distinguish some of the important violin phrases with clarity. In the Brahms, Grether was not in her element with regards to intonation during shifting and the high register, and there was a tentative approach to her playing—an approach that I’m certain was meant to sound sweet or tender, but left me wanting more richness of tone quality and less of an airy (“impressionistic”) sound.

 The atypically thin texture Grether applied to the Brahms worked well in the Debussy Sonata, and ironically—when she needed to—she also applied a beautifully strong tone that was sometimes missing in the Brahms. Perhaps she became more confident as the recital progressed, or perhaps she has greater familiarity with the Debussy, son of her soil. The Debussy interpretation contained poignant, memorable moments that reminded us that the composer was at his wistful, yet sometimes defiant end.  The Szymanowski was played with impressive virtuosity and an ear for its unique special effects and mellifluous colors of sound. Grether and Bardin were equally impressive at handling the variety of pyrotechnics. The duo excited the audience, who received two encores and left the hall happy.


New York Repertory Orchestra in Review

New York Repertory Orchestra
David Leibowitz, Music Director/Conductor
Olivier Fluchaire, violin
Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York, NY
October 23, 2010

Olivier Fluchaire

Described as New York’s leading community orchestra, the New York Repertory Orchestra consists of professional and amateur musicians. They come together for the joy of making music, which they share by performing “provocative programs” at the highest possible level. And they certainly have a lot of fans: at this concert, the church was filled with appreciative, enthusiastic, obviously regular listeners, who greeted one another, and the players, like old friends.

The Orchestra was founded in 1991 by its Music Director, David Leibowitz, who has conducted operas, ballets and concerts world-wide; he also teaches at various prestigious colleges, universities and summer institutes. As he proved on this occasion, he is not only an excellent conductor, but also an inspiring leader.

The program was adventurous and ambitious, and consisted of rarely played works – a wise choice in a city so full of concerts. It opened with the Concerto for Small Orchestra Op. 34 by Albert Roussel (1869-1937), written in 1927. The first movement is lively, energetic, and quite dissonant; the second is slow, somber and languid, featuring long, sustained chords in the woodwinds; the third is a marathon run of fast notes in perpetual motion. The orchestration is colorful and inventive.

The Roussel was followed by Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov and Gidon Kremer for violin and string orchestra, with the French-born violinist Olivier Fluchaire as soloist. After winning his first competition at age eleven, Fluchaire studied with Yehudi Menuhin at his London School and concertized throughout Europe; he came to New York, where he now lives, in 1992, and studied with Daniel Phillips and Patinka Kopec. He is active as soloist and chamber musician, and also teaches at several colleges, including Hunter College and the City University. A spectacular virtuoso, he played with effortless brilliance, unbridled passion, and a remarkable flair for Piazzolla’s rhythmic and melodic idiom. Due to the acoustics, the orchestra sometimes covered him, but the pieces’ many unaccompanied cadenzas showed his sonorous, intense, variable tone to fine advantage. He warmly acknowledged Principal Cellist Shanda Wooley, who stood out in a substantial solo.

The program concluded with the Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Written in 1914, it reflects his horror at the outbreak of World War I, and expresses his belief that “even if all things were destroyed or dead, nature would begin to breed new life again.” He called it “The Inextinguishable” because “music is life, and like life, inextinguishable.” The Symphony has four contrasting, connected movements; the music fluctuates between outbursts of chaotic frenzy played by full orchestra, and serene, almost cheerful melodies played by groups of solo instruments; at times it disintegrates, then revives with renewed energy; it ends in triumphant affirmation. 

The Church of St. Mary the Virgin is spacious and beautiful, but, like many large churches, has extremely reverberant acoustics; as a result, it was impossible to hear separate strands of melody or changes of harmony. (The players, too, must have had trouble hearing themselves and each other.) Only the wind instruments’ different timbres could be easily distinguished. The echoes also acted as amplification, especially when the music was loud. For example, Nielsen employs two sets of timpani, one on each side; at full throttle, they sounded ear-splitting and obliterated everything else.

 These circumstances made it very difficult to get a sense of the quality of the Orchestra’s sound and ensemble, though the solo wind players were clearly outstanding. But there was never a doubt of the participants’ enthusiasm and total commitment both to the music and the joint enterprise. The heart-warming air of good fellowship and mutual supportiveness contributed mightily to the success of the concert and the bond between performers and listeners.


The Ansonia Trio

The Ansonia Trio
Angelia Cho, violin
Laura Metcalf,  cello
Andrea Lam, piano
Bechstein Artist Series at Bechstein Piano, New York, NY
June 11, 2010

 

Ansonia Trio

Ansonia Trio

A relative newcomer to the chamber music scene, the Ansonia Trio was formed in 2009, and won the Grand Prize of the Daniel Rutenberg Chamber Music Competition the same year. The Trio made its New York debut at the New York House Concert series, has performed in various venues in and around New York, and participated in the Prussia Cove Festival in England.

Violinist Agelia Cho received her Bachelor of Music degree at the Curtis institute under the late Jascha Brodsky and Ida Kavafian, and her Master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music under Donald Weilerstein. She has won wide recognition as soloist, recitalist and chamber musician.

Cellist Laura Metcalf received her Master of Music degree at the Manes College of Music, studying with Timothy Eddy, and, upon graduation, was honored with the James E. Hughes award for excellence in performance. In addition to being active as soloist and teacher, she is a member of various chamber groups, such as the Tarab Cello Ensemble, a group of eight cellists with whom she has performed and recorded. She is assistant principal of the Chamber Orchestra of New York.

Australian pianist Andrea Lam studied with Boris Berman at the Yale School of Music, where she won the Woolsey Hall Competition, and with Arkady Aronov at the Manhattan School of Music, where she won the Roy M. Rubinstein Award. She was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, and has performed and recorded concertos with Australian orchestras and chamber music with the Takacs Quartet. She was featured at the 1999 and 2000 Sidney Festivals, playing for audiences of 180,000.

The Ansonia players say their goal is to “present programs that engage and inspire modern audiences.” The June 11 concert – their final one of this season – featured two romantic repertory favorites, Mendelssohn’s D-minor Trio Op. 49, and Brahms’ C-major Trio Op. 87, and two of Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.”

The Trio is clearly a fine, very promising group; only a year after its formation, the strings’ intonation is excellent, the players’ phrasing, dynamics and expression are unanimous, their ensemble and rapport – complete with approving looks and smiles – are close; they obviously enjoy their companionship and collaboration.

 
Technically, they were more than equal to the music’s demands, negotiating Mendelssohn’s brilliant writing with easy facility; indeed, the Scherzo, though not too fast for their fleet fingers, was too fast for human ears. They projected the work’s ardent romanticism without excess or sentimentality, capturing the dark, ominous tension of its corner movements and the calm serenity of the second. The Brahms was carefully paced, austere but expressive; the first movement’s tempo changes were smooth and organic. They made Piazzolla’s idiom sound as natural as their native language.

 
The concert’s only flaw was the balance. The intimate Bechstein auditorium is just right for chamber music, but the piano, a vintage concert grand, is much too big and loud for the space and the music. When kept wide open, even the most careful, well-intentioned pianist cannot help sometimes overpowering the strings. The late great cellist and teacher Felix Salmon, exhorting the string players in his student groups, used to say: “Just look at its size!”


Daniel Cho, violin

Daniel Cho, violin
Sunglee Victoria Choi, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 20, 2010

Daniel Cho

Daniel Cho played with a robust, confident sound at his New York recital debut, sponsored by the Korea Music Foundation; he displays a technique that is comparable to many top professionals today. Winner of the 2009 Great Mountains Music Festival Competition, he studies with Hyo Kang in Juilliard’s Pre-College Division. His technical prowess was exemplary in Wieniawski’s Fantaisie brillante on Themes from Gounod’s Faust; his up-bow spiccato, harmonics, difficult leaps, pizzicato and tricky double-stops were all eye-opening.

Corelli’s Sonata in E Major, which was composed in the second half of the 17th century, required clearer, more elegant phrasing and Baroque-Period simplicity, but Seunghyun Yun’s Decalcomania: Lament, a contemplative work combining the overt nature of open strings and the more mysterious qualities of major sevenths and minor ninths, was beautifully played, and with much devotion by Mr. Cho.

In the Grieg Sonata, pianist Sunglee Victoria Choi made the most of every solo turn, and—when required—she played with a lovely, tender sound. Cho had his musical moments too, but he didn’t always make the most of his opportunities to change tone color (his vibrato, pressure of the bow, etc.) in contrasting sections. Here and in Chopin’s Nocturne in D Major, Op. 27 No. 2, he sometimes forgot to substitute genuine sweetness for passion. Still, there is absolutely no doubt that Cho has complete command of his instrument. In fact, his sound is so resonant and lush that he would have no problem projecting over a full orchestra in heavily scored works such as the Shostakovich and Bartok concerti. And he certainly would be heard from the top balcony of a large hall such as Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium; hopefully, he will play there one day.


SoNoRo Festival Bucharest

Ensemble Raro:Diana Ketler, piano;
Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin;
Razvan Popovici, viola;
Bernhard Naoki Heidenborg, cello;
Roxana Constantinescu, guest mezzo-soprano
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
February 16, 2010

Formed in 2004, Ensemble Raro (named after Master Raro, the wise old arbiter of Schumann’s imaginary Davidsbündler) must be one of the best, most versatile young groups before the public. Resident Ensemble of the SoNoRo Festival, founded in 2006 by violist Popovici, the group appears in concert halls world-wide; this was its New York debut. SoNoRo has released two recordings, and fosters living composers through performances, and young musicians through scholarships.

The players of Ensemble Raro, who also pursue individual, solo, chamber music and teaching careers, are splendid technically, musically and communicatively, making this a true collaboration of equals. Although they were born and trained in different countries, their rapport is so close that they seem to share and anticipate one another’s whims and wishes; the strings’ tone, which is warm and expressive, blends together without losing its variety or individual timbre, and their intonation is impeccable, as they take over lines imperceptibly on the same note. Totally immersed in the music, they never call attention to themselves by sound or gesture. The only flaw, endemic to this combination, is the balance, which favors the (wide-open) piano, despite pianist Ketler’s obvious sensitivity.

Their program featured two novelties by Enescu and Peteris Vasks. Enescu’s Sept chansons de Clément Marot combines Romanian folk melodies with medieval modes and elegant French sophistication. Mezzo-soprano Constantinescu and pianist Ketler brought out the songs’ different character and moods beautifully. Born in 1946, Peteris Vasks gained recognition in the 1990s and has received several European honors and prizes. His Piano Quartet (2000-2001) is extremely difficult and almost unremittingly intense. The strings often alternate with the piano in textures featuring solos, duets, chordal unisons, long glissandi, double stops, and drones. Some of its six movements flow together, some are obsessively repetitive, and all have powerful climaxes (Vasks calls one “a black hole”). The Raro Ensemble introduced it in Germany and England; in this New York premiere, their performance was committed and authoritative.

The players’ youthful romanticism showed to fine advantage in a wonderfully spontaneous, exuberant, expressive but unsentimental performance of Schumann’s Piano Quartet. But the playing of the slow movement of Brahms’ C Minor Piano Quartet as an encore was even more impressive for its deeply felt inwardness.