Saturday, July 17, 2010

Music review: Beethoven's 'Harp' stands out in second chamber fest concert

Joaquín Turina‭ (‬1882-1949‭)‬.

By Greg Stepanich

The‭ ‬10th string quartet of Beethoven,‭ ‬depending on which scholarly camp you favor,‭ ‬is‭ ‬either a genial mid-career throwback to the peak of the Haydn classical style or the earliest example of the‭ ‬innovatory,‭ ‬astonishing‭ ‬manner‭ ‬of the‭ ‬late-period‭ ‬quartets.‭

Either way,‭ ‬it‭’‬s a remarkable piece of music from a remarkable year‭ (‬1809‭)‬,‭ ‬and it was the high point Friday night of the second series of concerts in the current Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival.‭

Known familiarly by its‭ ‬Harp sobriquet,‭ ‬the quartet‭ (‬in E-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬74‭)‬,‭ ‬is a brilliantly structured‭ ‬piece that in its outer movements employs a free-fantasy‭ ‬approach‭ ‬that emphasizes drama and sonic effect,‭ ‬and‭ ‬in its inner movements trades a placid slow movement for a searing‭ ‬exercise‭ ‬in sustained,‭ ‬intense emotion,‭ ‬and‭ ‬swaps‭ ‬a minuet for a‭ ‬ferocious minor-major stomp-and-fugue that echoes the Fifth Symphony and presages the Ninth.‭

And it was well-served by its four players:‭ ‬Violinists Mei-Mei Luo and Dina Kostic,‭ ‬violist Rene Reder,‭ ‬and cellist Susan Bergeron.‭ ‬ Throughout the‭ ‬work the four women‭ ‬played with deep commitment and‭ ‬engagement,‭ ‬and displayed‭ ‬fine technique and musicianship.‭ ‬Standout moments came‭ ‬with Bergeron‭’‬s first volley in‭ ‬the‭ ‬battle of the‭ ‬third-movement‭ ‬fugue,‭ ‬which‭ ‬she played with great‭ ‬speed while giving each‭ ‬note its full value,‭ ‬and with the‭ ‬second‭ ‬movement as a whole,‭ ‬which had an unbroken dramatic line‭ ‬that‭ ‬lost none of its focus even during the‭ ‬break in the middle.

The final theme and variations was‭ ‬somewhat‭ ‬shakier,‭ ‬with an underplayed viola variation and some initial fuzziness about each section before recovering in the two-against-three passage toward the end.‭ ‬The opening movement,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬had some moments of not-quite-togetherness,‭ ‬but the game changed for this foursome in the final moments of the opening,‭ ‬as Luo began her‭ ‬diminished-chord fiddling and the rest of the quartet sang out the central motifs with warmth and beauty.‭ ‬That‭’‬s where this performance jelled,‭ ‬and I think‭ ‬by Monday‭ ‬evening,‭ ‬with two more concerts under their belt,‭ ‬these musicians will be able to give this great work an exceptional reading.

The Beethoven was easily the best music on the‭ ‬program at Palm Beach Atlantic‭’‬s Persson Hall,‭ ‬which‭ ‬opened with‭ ‬another‭ ‬string‭ ‬quartet,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Oración del Torero,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬34,‭ ‬of Joaquín Turina.‭ ‬This‭ ‬is probably Turina‭’‬s best-known piece,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the string players‭ ‬– Kostic,‭ ‬Rebecca Didderich,‭ ‬Reder and cellist Christopher Glansdorp‭ ‬– performed‭ ‬it with panache and high style.‭ ‬Intonation,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬was problematic,‭ ‬with most of‭ ‬the‭ ‬unison octave passages not in tune,‭ ‬and‭ ‬that makes a difference in a piece as transparent,‭ ‬aromatic,‭ ‬and melody-oriented as this one.‭ ‬Glansdorp played‭ ‬beautifully,‭ ‬even when just buttressing the music with fat‭ ‬pizzicati,‭ ‬and the four‭ ‬musicians handled the whispered,‭ ‬atmospheric ending‭ ‬very nicely.

The Turina was followed by the‭ ‬sextet‭ ‬for piano and wind quintet‭ ‬of Francis Poulenc,‭ ‬one‭ ‬of the high points of French‭ ‬20th-century chamber music writing.‭ ‬Pianist Lisa Leonard was joined by flutist Karen Dixon,‭ ‬oboist Sherie Aguirre,‭ ‬clarinetist Michael Forte,‭ ‬hornist Ellen Tomasiewicz and bassoonist Michael Ellert for‭ ‬this‭ ‬piece,‭ ‬which the festival is revisiting after‭ ‬scheduling‭ ‬it some‭ ‬16‭ ‬years ago.‭ ‬

This is a piece for expert players,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the six musicians had no real difficulty playing in good French style or understanding Poulenc‭’‬s kitschy aesthetic,‭ ‬nor were the technical challenges‭ ‬beyond‭ ‬their reach.‭ ‬Tomasiewicz missed a couple notes here‭ ‬and‭ ‬there,‭ ‬but this is a murderous horn part,‭ ‬and what sticks in the memory more is her‭ ‬fine‭ ‬playing of the soaring high passages,‭ ‬especially‭ ‬in the finale.

But overall,‭ ‬this was a much too aggressive performance,‭ ‬as if the‭ ‬volume had been cranked up to‭ ‬11‭ ‬and left there.‭ ‬There was a powerful‭ ‬crispness‭ ‬to the music,‭ ‬particularly on Leonard‭’‬s part,‭ ‬who‭ ‬played‭ ‬with great‭ ‬strength and clarity,‭ ‬but what was missing was a sense of proportion and variety.‭ ‬Poulenc is a composer of‭ ‬many shifting moods,‭ ‬and it would have been better had‭ ‬the impressive bignesses of each‭ ‬movement‭ ‬also offered real contrast,‭ ‬not only in the presentation of the‭ ‬different‭ ‬themes,‭ ‬but in basic dynamics,‭ ‬which‭ ‬would‭ ‬have helped the music regain its subtlety.

The other work on‭ ‬the‭ ‬program was a contemporary piece,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Arioso for trumpet and wind‭ ‬quintet of Jerzy Sapieyevski,‭ ‬a Polish-born American composer who has taught at American University for years,‭ ‬and who‭ ‬wrote the work in‭ ‬1986‭ ‬at the request of the International Trumpet Guild.‭ ‬Trumpeter Marc Reese,‭ ‬whose standup-comedian style‭ ‬pre-performance‭ ‬remarks‭ ‬were‭ ‬quite‭ ‬funny,‭ ‬was the soloist.‭

This is a generally miserable piece of music,‭ ‬I‭’‬m sorry to say,‭ ‬at the level for the‭ ‬most‭ ‬part‭ ‬of a bad movie score.‭ ‬The piece dates from a period of classical composition when composers were‭ ‬beginning‭ ‬to feel unafraid to write tunes again,‭ ‬and Sapieyevski has a good feel for a catchy melody.‭ ‬But‭ ‬these pop-flavored tunes are too obvious,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the‭ ‬composer compounds the sin by leaving the accompanying quintet playing‭ ‬cheesy block‭ ‬chord‭ ‬changes‭ ‬most of the time.

Reese plays quite well,‭ ‬and he tossed off the scale rocket at the end of the watery-disco main section with sparkle each time it occurred.‭ ‬But‭ ‬he really needs to have‭ ‬something‭ ‬much better to play,‭ ‬like the Saint-Saëns Septet he performed with the festival a few years back.‭ ‬That‭’‬s‭ ‬a piece worth reviving,‭ ‬and one hopes the festival musicians won‭’‬t be offering the‭ ‬Arioso the same courtesy in years‭ ‬to come.‭

The‬Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival‭ ‬repeats this program at‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday at the Crest Theatre,‭ ‬Delray Beach,‭ ‬and at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Monday at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$22.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬800-330-6874‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.pbcmf.org.‭

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