Saturday, June 25, 2011

Music review: Passionate Brahms performances marred by piano tuning

Johannes Brahms‭ (‬1833-1897‭)‬.


By Greg Stepanich


Anyone who‭’‬s been to an arts camp or summer festival has heard that sound before‭ ‬– enthusiastic,‭ ‬friendly voices loudly acclaiming a performance by members of the team.

Tuesday night at Palm Beach Atlantic University‭’‬s Persson Hall,‭ ‬the applause‭ ‬from a home-court crowd‭ ‬was heard for two aggressive performances‭ ‬by faculty members at the summer Stringendo School for Strings,‭ ‬who played‭ ‬music by Brahms:‭ ‬his Piano Quartet No.‭ ‬1‭ (‬in G minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬25‭)‬,‭ ‬and the Piano Quintet‭ (‬in F minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬34‭)‬.‭ ‬And indeed these performances,‭ ‬featuring well-known local players as well as members of the Cleveland and Atlanta orchestras,‭ ‬were completely committed,‭ ‬engaged ones,‭ ‬in which the musicians could be seen attacking this seminal music with real passion.

But while there was much fine playing in both pieces,‭ ‬the evening was marred for me by an out-of-tune piano,‭ ‬with a noticeably flat C above middle C and what sounded like some shaky notes around it as well.‭ ‬The bad tuning threw off the intonation of the whole concert as the string players referenced‭ ‬a faulty model,‭ ‬the proof being in the soli‭ ‬sections without the keyboard,‭ ‬in which the strings could be heard in revised,‭ ‬balanced‭ ‬adjustment with themselves.

The G minor‭ ‬Piano Quartet,‭ ‬featuring the fine pianist Tao Lin along with violinist Jun-Ching Lin‭ (‬of the‭ ‬Atlanta Symphony‭)‬,‭ ‬violist Stanley Konopka‭ (‬of the‭ ‬Cleveland Orchestra‭)‬,‭ ‬and cellist Jonah Kim,‭ ‬began in sober style but very much out of tune,‭ ‬a problem underlined by the many unison octaves in Brahms‭’‬ writing.‭ ‬Amid the off-key proceedings could be heard some attractive playing,‭ ‬and by Kim in particular,‭ ‬who made the most of his solo passages such as the intensely emotional introduction of the second subject.‭

From the outset,‭ ‬the four players demonstrated a strong sense of ensemble,‭ ‬and they had a clear unity of interpretive vision.‭ ‬The Intermezzo second movement was more deliberate than light on its feet,‭ ‬and the trio had a markedly gentle quality as it opened.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Andante con moto third movement had the same kind of tense,‭ ‬big-boned reading as the other movements,‭ ‬and it proceeded inexorably and powerfully to the waltz-time march in the middle‭; ‬it was here that his performance really began to cook.

The Gypsy finale‭ (‬marked‭ ‬Presto‭) ‬of this quartet is a proven crowd-pleaser,‭ ‬and this foursome took it at a swift but not blistering pace.‭ ‬ All four did good work with the almost constant sixteenth notes that run through this‭ ‬movement,‭ ‬and pianist Lin did an expert job setting up the coda with murmurs that slowly built to the foot-stomping conclusion.‭ ‬The almost-full house at Persson Hall gave the players three long curtain calls.

The Quintet,‭ ‬which featured the two Lins and Konopka,‭ ‬with cellist Claudio Jaffe and Stringendo director‭ ‬Patrick Clifford on second violin,‭ ‬was similar to the Quartet in that it was large-minded and boldly colored.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a more cohesive piece than the Quartet‭ (‬as fine a work as that is‭)‬,‭ ‬but no less fiery,‭ ‬and the five players dove into it with intensity.‭ ‬So this was a first movement,‭ ‬leaving the tuning aside,‭ ‬that had sweep and majesty,‭ ‬especially in its main theme,‭ ‬aided by the group‭’‬s excellent ensemble.

The second movement‭’‬s mid-section had good duet work from Clifford and Konopka,‭ ‬and there was a kind of restless serenity about the playing as a whole,‭ ‬and a careful focus on the primary six-note motif that extends throughout.‭ ‬As with the Quartet,‭ ‬things really got moving in the third movement,‭ ‬easily the best-known of the four,‭ ‬with violinist Lin and Konopka setting up the military tattoo with memorable precision,‭ ‬and all five tearing into the big climactic tune with near-abandon.

The beginning of the finale is tough to bring off after that level of excitement,‭ ‬and‭ ‬it was a little unfocused here,‭ ‬but cellist Jaffe played the Haydnesque main theme with lovely tone and rhythmic sinew,‭ ‬moving the performance back onto the rails.‭ ‬Overall,‭ ‬intensity was the guiding principle,‭ ‬and again,‭ ‬the five musicians built powerfully to the ending,‭ ‬handling all of their very‭ ‬difficult,‭ ‬perpetual-motion parts with admirable skill.

It‭’‬s a testament to the seriousness and the strength with which this music was played that the out-of-whack piano was not as noticeable through both works as it could have been.‭ ‬But it still hurt the‭ ‬music,‭ ‬through no fault of the players.‭ ‬Before the final concert Tuesday,‭ ‬which includes‭ ‬the Schubert Arpeggione‭ (‬which in A minor‭)‬ and the Borodin Piano Quintet‭ (‬which is‭ ‬in C minor‭)‬,‭ ‬someone needs to tune that piano.‭

The Stringendo School for Strings faculty concert series ends Tuesday with violinist David Mastrangelo in the Sonata No.‭ ‬2‭ ‬for solo violin of Eugene Ysaye,‭ ‬and Mastrangelo and cellist Jonah Kim in the Passacaglia on a Theme by Handel of Johan Halvorsen.‭ ‬Joined by pianist Yueh-Yin Liao,‭ ‬Kim‭ ‬will play the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata,‭ ‬and Kim,‭ ‬Liao and Mastrangelo will be joined by violinist Belen Clifford and violist David Pedraza in the Piano Quintet of Alexander Borodin.‭ ‬The concert begins at‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday in Persson Recital Hall.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$15.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬803-2970‭ ‬or e-mail ticketcentral@pba.edu.

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