During his pre-concert lecture for the concert Saturday night, August 14, of the Portland Chamber Music Festival at University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center, composer Elliott Schwartz remarked that two of the three works on the program had been composed in only a matter of days: Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola, K. 423 and Dvorák’s Sextet in A Major, Op. 48. For those familiar with the compositional history of a figure like Mozart, this is not especially surprising, but the performers filled every nook and cranny of the hall with a sense of artistry that did underscore Schwartz’s comments.
The Mozart Duo for Violin and Viola featured the immense talents of Sunghae Anna Lim on violin and Jonathan Vinocour on viola. It was a pleasure both to listen to and watch these two very passionate performers as they matched each other’s intensity note for note. Vinocour, who is principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony, had incredible contrapuntal sensitivity, and Lim’s thematic articulation was both expressive and precise. The Adagio is a challenge as it calls for individual expressivity without corrupting the tempo or sense of ensemble between the two players. While Vinocour used more eye contact, and Lim clearly relied upon her ear, it worked beautifully. In the final Rondeau, the viola must fight against the aural predominance of the violin’s higher range, and both performers seemed conscious of this, keeping the texture light while unveiling the true “viola moments.” In the phenomenal closing arpeggiations of the viola against the violin, Lim and Vinocour worked as would the left hand and right hand of a piano, creating the sense of absolute psychic connection between them.
Directly before the performance of her 2004 work Happy Rain on a Spring Night, composer Chen Yi spoke with the evening’s emcee, Suzanne Nance, radio host and Music Director for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. The composer offered some intriguing discussion of the work, revealing her use of Fibonacci procedures and the influence of the sounds of the poem’s original Mandarin translated to five instruments: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Chen Yi, who was asked to speak both prior the concert and before the performance of her piece, managed to provide fresh commentary in both instances. I remark on this only because there was much redundancy within the program notes, Elliott Schwartz’s pre-concert lecture, and Suzanne Nance’s introductory segments (particularly in regard to Mozart’s work). While I’m very much in favor of catering these types of commentary to a generalized audience, the excess repetition had the overall impact of dumbing down the evening. This could be easily remedied by collaboration between annotator, lecturer, and emcee, or a consolidation of these elements.
But if the concert’s textual and narrative aspects were often redundant, the music was anything but. Chen Yi’s music was illuminated by the amazing control and technique of violinist Jennifer Elowitch, one of the festival’s two Artistic Directors, in ethereal passages recalling the Chinese erhu. In the opening section, the sound of the piano was a bit strident (I’m seldom a fan of piano at full stick in chamber music), but pianist Dena Levine’s artistry in the third section shimmered and glistened with the “saturated” light of the inspirational poem. Nothing in this music was gratuitous, and the performers honored that by giving each note, phrase, and gesture their utmost attention. The louder piano worked well in the more rhythmically charged section toward the end, which also featured symbiotic wind playing between Elizabeth Mann on flute and Jo-Ann Sternberg on clarinet. The call and response finale between the strings and the winds over the rumbles of the piano (used most often in the piece as a percussion instrument) had the kind of drama and energy that makes the final cadence come too quickly for the listener who wants more.
The real showstopper of the evening, however, was the Dvorák sextet. Schwartz’s pre-concert offerings on this work were more captivating and less reliant upon the program notes. He astutely directed the audience’s attention toward the grouping possibilities of the sextet: two groups of three (violin, viola, cello) or three groups of two. I would add, especially given the talents of all six players, six “groups” of one; the ensemble is led primarily by the first violin, but there are moments that unmask the virtuosic and melodic capabilities of each instrument. Violinist Miranda Cuckson’s playing began a little stiffly but soon relaxed and blossomed into moments of poignant lyricism interspersed with dance-like energy. Her impeccable articulation provided a clear thematic beacon, making sure the piece never became passion devoid of musical coherence. Cellists Marc Johnson and Claire Bryant provided consistent warmth and beautiful tone, but it was Bryant who was the most thrilling to watch. Although physicality can sometimes obstruct a musical performance, in Bryant’s case it only added a visual reinforcement of the aural colors and pyrotechnics in Dvorák’s writing.
In the second movement, the duet between Cuckson and Elowitch navigated the emotional fluctuations of the piece with great finesse, allowing Cuckson’s beautiful tone (now fully realized) to fill the hall. The third and final movements showcased the performers’ amazing sense of ensemble in light of scoring that requires challenging individual versatility and musicianship. Violist Carol Rodland’s gorgeous thematic exposition in the finale paved the way for a remarkable set of variations that highlighted the energy and stamina of these six players. Often ignited with a spark from Cuckson that traveled through the sextet like an electric current, the ensemble brought symphonic intensity to the chamber work without forgetting the original medium. The Portland Chamber Music Festival is well worth the drive from Boston, featuring inventive programming and absolutely top-notch musical performances.