Dancing at the Dock Street? 

At Wednesday’s Chamber IV program, we got treated to the playing of what Geoff Nuttall called the “Dock Street Dance Band” — actually the members of his St. Lawrence Quartet plus clarinet Meister Todd Palmer and flute sorceress Tara Helen O’Connor, with keyboard whiz Pedja Musijevic at the Steinway. The music was Johann Strauss II’s Emperor Waltz, one of the best-known of his classic waltzes. After introducing the piece, Geoff said, “I encourage you to sing along and dance in the aisles as we play ... there should be enough room for waltzing.”

The piece was originally arranged for chamber ensemble by none other than the later Viennese master Arnold Schoenberg, whose eclectic serial compositions still strike fear into the hearts of many music lovers. But Geoff hastened to reassure us that Schoenberg had preserved the original music faithfully, except for a few tongue-in-cheek modern touches that hardly affect the music’s appeal. He and his colleagues then launched into the piece, playing with classic Viennese lilt and sunny spirit. They took me straight back to the days of my youth, much of it spent growing up (gorging on great music all the while) in Vienna (hearing Strauss always brings on a fit of heavy nostalgia). 

“How much fun was that?” cried Geoff after it was over. “You should’ve heard us rehearsing this one yesterday — everybody was singing along as we played,” (except those who had wind instruments stuck in their faces). Sorry to say it, but nobody took Geoff up on his kind invitation to sing and dance.

From such light and frothy fare, it was on — according to Geoff — to one of the most “seriously incomprehensible” pieces in all of Western music, and it wasn’t even one o’ them infernal modern works! We’re talking Ludwig van Beethoven’s mighty Grosse Fuge (great fugue), originally written as the finale to one of his late string quartets, but later published separately. Maybe that’s a good thing, ‘cause this is one of those indescribably metaphysical late pieces from Beethoven that musicologists have been scratching their noggins about for nearly two centuries — and they still don’t have it completely figured out.

Geoff and the rest of the SLSQ then proceeded to break down the work for us in detail, playing quite a few brief excerpts to illustrate his points. It turns out that the piece is written in an almost symphonic format, with a brief opening “overture” as well as a slow section and a “scherzo” of sorts, much like you would find in a symphony of the era. Then they got down to business, delivering their very difficult material with precision and their usual panache. And I gotta tell you, the piece (which has always confused me in the past) made a lot more sense this time, thanks to Geoff’s tutorial. And, judging from the audience’s warm response, they got a lot out of it, too.

The final work was by the late romantic Russian composer Anton Stepanovich Arensky: the so-called “two-cello” string quartet, Op. 35, a work that was prompted by the sudden death of his teacher, Tchaikovsky. Scored for violin and viola along with the double cellos, it’s a particularly dark-sounding and somber work — no surprise, considering its unhappy inspiration. Performing were Daniel Phillips on violin and Hsin-Yun Huang on viola, plus SLSQ’s Chris Costanza and Series darling Alisa Weilerstein on cello.

The piece began with a one of those typically doleful Russian themes that drips depression and misery before morphing into a grief-stricken threnody that hardly ever lost its tone of mourning. The second movement, based on a melancholic Tchaikovsky song, was in theme-and-variations format. Happier music happened intermittently in a couple of the variations, but it never lasted long before slipping back into sad mode. The dark mood continued into the third movement, based on a popular folksong in praise of the Russian Czar. Even with all the musical sighs and sobs, the piece was incredibly beautiful, and played to absolute perfection.

Chalk up yet another winner at Dock Street. 


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