First Impressions Revisited
Merkin Concert Hall
Louis Spohr: Double String Quartet # 1
Erwin Schulhoff: String Sextet
Felix Mendelssohn: Quintet, Op. 18
Concertante Chamber Players is an elastic group of generation X string performers dedicated to the holy art of ensemble presentation. I first reviewed them in 1999 here at Merkin and found them to be well along the overgrown path leading to success in their chosen art form, with its corresponding vows of isolation and poverty (I once asked a professional musician who was teaching a young student whether the pupil had what it took to become an accomplished recitalist in future and he replied “unfortunately, yes”). At the time, their overall sound was a bit thin in spots, but could be rallied to produce an uncommonly warm performance, in that case of the Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. Since then, much has happened in their maturation process (three years is a vast amount of time for a twenty-something concert artist), including a very fine CD that exhibits distinctive originality (their contemplative tempi in Verklaerte Nacht are to die for) and a revelatory performance of a genuine discovery: the septet version of Strauss’ Metamorphosen. It seemed time to check in with these talented aspirants once again, and so I journeyed back to the same hall to hear a program of colorful rarities in a fine lepidopterist’s collection.
Besides the shortened name, what was immediately noticeable was a much more satisfying blending of the voices, a supple and euphonious whole reflecting much hard work and shared communal goals. This unity was interestingly displayed at the outset in a delightful rendition of one of the more inventive pieces of Louis Spohr, a composer seriously undervalued for a very long time. Not an octet, but rather a double quartet, the group lined up on stage as a musical palindrome, the two sections neighbors not family. It was curious to observe the interplay of parts when the first first violin is so far from the second first violin, however, the composer does not exploit the mirror image but rather employs the stage left group more as a continuo. Certainly these fine musicians understood their roles and phrased accordingly. Overall, this was music making of a very high order and Spohr’s lovely melodies were superbly developed and cherished. I am very pleased that the second of these double acrostics will be presented next season: what is apparent from the brochure is that Concertante will continue to be adventurous in repertoire.
Particularly impressive was their reading of the Schulhoff. This is an angry work from the bad old 1920’s and reflects the young composer’s allegiance to the Second Viennese School. Sounding almost as if written in the 21st century, the densely polyphonic lines combine for a cathartic journey inward and what was most rewarding was this excellent group’s ability to extract the poetic from the polemic. Special praise goes to cellist Edward Arron for sensitively intoned soli and quietly dramatic thoughtfulness. The group exhibited some of the most committed playing that I have heard in a long while and, as they brought the volume level down to a whisper, their expressive powers reached new heights. The audience was deeply moved by this quietude, this rendition one of the best performances of music of the last century in memory.
In my other life, I am privileged to assist in a small way one of the world’s largest medical aid foundations. I received a colleague’s message the other day from the depths of the horrors on the West Bank:
“The number of students at the National Conservatory of Music seems to increase every time I visit Palestine. Situated in Ramallah, but with outreach to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it currently has 300 to 400 students, learning to play various instruments and studying music theory and composition. Shortly we will help it build another floor on its building for classrooms, a library and performance space.”
Listening to these fine players last evening fills me with hope for the continuing survival of our cherished art form. As long as there is spirit, there will always be beauty.
Frederick L. Kirshnit