There was a lot of high-quality chamber-music making at the Sarasota Music Festival this past weekend — Thursday in Holley Hall and Friday at the Opera House. It was everything a great teaching festival should be: varied, innovative, exciting and colorful.
Joan Tower’s “Rising,” based on scales that seem to go up without ever needing to descend, had its festival premiere in the very masterful hands of flutist Carol Wincenc, violinists Charles Wetherbee and Daniel Jordan, Stephanie Block (an exceptionally talented violist currently attending Juilliard) and cellist Desmond Hoebig. Modal more than tonal, it’s an attention-grabbing, appealing work that has stimulating rhythmic patterns along with some positively glorious obbligato passages for cello and fascinating descants for flute.
Three sections from Max Bruch’s Eight Studies for Clarinet (Eli Eban), Viola (Kim Kashkashian) and Piano (Robert Levin) also appeared on this festival’s program for the first time. Sounding like a cross between Brahms and Grieg, its colors range from rich and warm (especially with Eban on the colorful “A” clarinet) to the fun, sprightly, Mendelssohnian scherzo-like finale (really the seventh study in the collection). The trio had a wondrous blend that gave the work a charm and luster that lived up to Levin’s description of it as “hot schlag with chocolate sauce.”
If you read this column with any regularity, you know I’m a great proponent of vocal chamber music, so the festival’s addition of four “Masterpieces of Cabaret,” featuring soprano Susan Lorette Dunn and the excellent pianist Jean Schneider, made my heart flip-flop with joy. The songs — all colorful personality pieces — are charming, as was Dunn’s performance of them, but, because three of the four (Weill’s tango, “Youkali;” Bolcom’s delectably witty “Amor;” and Poulenc’s sensuous and gorgeous “Les Chemins de l’amour”) are more for a full-throated mezzo than a lyric soprano, the important lyrics and depth of color were lost. The fourth song, Flanders’ and Swann’s hilarious “A Word on My Ear,” about a tone-deaf singer, was more successful, but the entire group would have been better served by a singer with the timbre of a Stephanie Blythe or someone more conversant in the necessary speaking, rather than singing vocalism. Still, it was great to have the variety and color of vocal chamber music on the program.
Friday evening’s program had its own brand of color and variety starting with the first movement of Brahms’ G Major Quintet, Opus 111, performed with energy and beauty by violinists Philip Martin (Rice) and Caeli Smith (Juilliard), violist Dan Stone (Indiana), the ubiquitous Stephanie Block and cellist Ben Manis (Colburn).
They were followed by an absolutely stunning performance of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, Opus 57, which made its way to the festival for the first time in the phenomenal hands of pianist Susan Starr, violinist Charles Wetherbee, violist Kashkashian and a pair of students: violinist Luke Witchger (Juilliard) and cellist Erik Wheeler (a prodigious talent from Rice). Together, they presented one of the most cohesive performances of this work imaginable, making me want to run to my computer to download the music for home listening.
A quintet of students — Vladislav Boguinia, a pianist from Mannes; violinist Rebecca Reale and violist Jarita Ng (both from Rice), cellist Aaron Wolff (Oberlin) and bassist Nina DeCesare (more Rice) — gave a reading of the famous Theme and Variations from Schubert’s “Trout” that was somewhat over-enthusiastic and misguided in that each of the talented musicians seemed to have a different idea of how to play it, rather than the unified sound that will come with aging.
Poulenc’s gorgeous Sextet for Flute (Wincenc), Oboe (Allan Vogel), Clarinet (Eban), Bassoon (Frank Morelli), Horn (William Purvis) and Piano (Levin) positively levitated from its big-bang opening to its sprightly and masterful conclusion, making this one of the high points of the weekend. It showed what virtuosity and enthusiasm, combined with musical taste and talent, can do to make sparks fly.
Verdi’s String Quartet in E Minor is heard often on radio but is a rarity in person. The composer, known primarily for his operas, wrote little in the way of chamber music, especially for instruments. The story of this piece is that he composed it at the age of 60 in his spare time while in Naples for a production of “Aida.” It has lots of those soaring Verdian melodies and a few oomp-pah pahs in the harmonic structure but, when played with the dramatic flair and blended vocalism of violinists James Buswell and Daniel Jordan, violist Barbara Westphal and cellist Desmond Hoebig, it has more color and dash than I remember from the myriad recorded performances I heard at WQXR. In this beautifully vocal performance by those string players, it was like an aria without words and made for an excellent first hearing at the Sarasota Music Festival.
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