The first thing that grabbed the audience’s attention Sunday after series director Geoff Nuttall sauntered blithely out onto the stage was … his sudden lack of hair. Nuttall has a thing for weird hair (he dyed it blond the year he took over the series). Thus far this festival, he has been sporting shoulder-length hair in its natural color: medium brown (I think). But apparently, both he and his wife got tired of it; so he, Tony Manzo, and Pedja Muzijevic got together Saturday evening and gave each other buzz-cuts with a set of electric clippers. Manzo and Muzijevic didn’t have a whole lot of hair to begin with, so when they appeared later, they didn’t look appreciably different. But Nuttall did. Don’t get me wrong, Geoff: not bad, just different!
This program kicked off with something a bit different: the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Leos Janacek. Music by this most eclectic of late romantic-era Czech composers often strikes people as a little strange, with quirky rhythms that are often hard to follow, really different sorts harmonic schemes and unpredictable dynamics. Nuttall called it all “crazy.” But most people will find that Janacek’s music, while distinctly modern-sounding, will grow on them. Knowing what’s behind his tricks helps: for example, his habit of modeling his rhythms after human speech patterns. Of course, it helps if you speak Czech, but just learning that fact is a real eureka moment for many listeners who are trying to figure him out.
Janacek started out writing music in the style of his compatriots, like Smetana and Dvořák, and this violin sonata started out as an early work that he just couldn’t seem to finish. But as he was approaching old age, his new style (and his most productive period) kicked in; he returned to the piece in 1914, finishing it in the compositional voice that we now know him by. Enter violinist Jennifer Frautschi and pianist Stephen Prutsman, in his first series appearance. His flowing shoulder-length hair made up for Geoff’s lack of it.
The music was typical for Janacek: abrupt rhythmic and dynamic shifts on top of hairpin harmonic turns; moments of brutal power and brusque surprise alternated with moments of sweetly beguiling lyricism. The crowd seemed to get into it, or so their enthusiastic applause told us.
The program’s central work was short and sweet: a little piece called Czárdás by Vittorio Monti. I know it in its most commonly heard version for violin and piano, but it’s been transcribed for a host of other instruments: including French horn, as arranged by the virtuoso who played it here, Eric Ruske (with Mr. Muzijevic at the Steinway). The Czárdás form is probably of Hungarian origin (at least the name is), and most listeners will perceive it as being in the Gypsy style that was all the rage in Europe back in late-romantic days. It consists of a slow and soul-wrenching first half, and a really speedy and skittering final section. The French horn is hard enough to play as it is, but Ruske played it so fast toward the end as to be almost beyond belief. There were a few tiny bloopers, but who cares, when tossed off with such speed, skill, and playful abandon? The crowd loved it.
The much-anticipated finale came in the form of Antonin Dvořák’s glorious String Quintet No. 2, Op. 77, a work that started off as his Op. 18, an earlier version that he later revised to produce the version we heard today. Dvořák’s music often sounds like it was based on actual Czech folk music, but he always wrote his own melodies, though in the spirit of his national music traditions. It’s been one of my faves among his chamber music for years, and it was a real treat to hear it done in concert for a change. It was chock-full of his usual gorgeous melodies, harmonies, modulations and effects: qualities that make him a top favorite of many classical fans.
Bringing the piece to lustrous sonic life was the trusty St. Lawrence Quartet, reinforced by double-bass wizard Tony Manzo, whose instrument lent the work an almost orchestral depth. The obvious affection that all of the players have for this music translated into a performance of rare quality, verve and impact. They couldn’t have picked a better work to finish the concert with.