Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Charms of Chamber II

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Tue, May 26, 2009 at 11:27 AM

Sunday morning’s second chamber program at the Memminger bookended a spectacular romantic-era classic between two nearly brand-new pieces from contemporary notables — and almost everybody actually liked them! And therein lies the wisdom of not telling the public what they’re going to hear ‘til they get there: a Spoleto custom that goes back the festival’s beginnings. Lots of folks would never buy a ticket to an event with strange new names on the menu.

First up was “La Ultima Noche en la Casa de Flamenco” (last night at the house of flamenco) by rising American composer Kenji Bunch, part of a four-movement suite for clarinet and piano. Jose Franch-Ballester, the brilliant young Spanish clarinetist at hand, engaged host Wadsworth in a lively (and funny) dialogue beforehand — but Arts Editor John Stoehr has already recounted that in a separate post below. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott was his passionate collaborator.

The music was kind of a perky and very entertaining fantasia/parody on Hispanic themes, with often exaggerated references to familiar classic Latino tunes like Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña.” I caught tinges of jazz and flamenco, with the latter accentuated by rhythmic clapping from Ana Maria Fonseca (she’s been serving as the series’ page-turner — but she’s also a fine harpsichordist). Hoosez today’s music ain’t accessible (or FUN)? Everybody loved it.

Next came the morning’s highlight for most: Felix Mendelssohn’s dramatic and hyperactive Piano Trio in D Minor, famous for its puckish scherzo movement. But the other sections were also something to behold as well. Performing were Chee-Yun (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello) and McDermott back at the keyboard.

The melodramatic opening movement riveted our attention, building to a fever pitch before melting into the slow movement’s soft and songful beauty. Weilerstein delivered here some of the most ravishing cello “singing” I’ve ever heard, weaving in and out of a tapestry of sweet sighs from the violin and pearly piano tones. But just as I was teetering on the brink of tears, along came the sprightly, elfin scherzo: the kind of rarefied musical fantasy that only Mendelssohn could come up with. The finale continued in much the same mood and spirit, but now weighed down with a touch of drama and pathos. Pure, unadulterated magic.

Wadsworth — after making a brief fuss over his “Associate Artistic Director” (hint, hint!), turned over the stage to Geoff Nuttall, the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s first violin, to introduce the final work: modern mega-composer John Adams’ first-ever String Quartet. As he explained, “String quartets are tough on a composer who’s used to writing for orchestra. The economy and spare lines of the quartet form seem too exposed — you can’t hide behind the more amorphous sound of a big band.”

Each of the work’s two sections began in the minimalist style that made Adams famous — but things quickly got busier and more sophisticated, with snippets reminiscent of the late Beethoven and Debussy quartets that apparently served as inspirations for the work. We also heard nature-sounds (like birdcalls) and a wealth of other interesting textures and effects. Nuttall and company (Scott St. John, violin 2; Lesley Robertson, viola; and Christopher Costanza, cello) sounded both convincing and comfortable with the elaborate score … they’ve been touring it across Europe and North America (this was its fifth USA performance). They’ll be recording it soon — and I can hardly wait, ‘cause this is the kind of music you’ve got to hear more than once to appreciate fully.

There were those present who would’ve sooner heard a repeat of the Mendelssohn (I heard a neighbor say so) — but Adams is one of our top handful of living American composers — and I heard this as a work of real genius. It couldn’t have been TOO tough on the crowd, ‘cause they gave up a hearty standing O.

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