A month ago it was almost impossible to drive to the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock. Spring floods had washed out the approach road, causing severe damage. That won’t happen again, as the extensive repairs included digging channels for runoff that will protect the roadways and the hall. So all was well for the beginning of the 96th annual Maverick Concerts series on Sunday afternoon, June 26.
Thinking back on hearing the Tokyo String Quartet at Maverick, where the group has appeared annually for thirty-seven years, I couldn’t help remembering how much I disliked its performances at first. Its technical quality and ensemble work were always awesome, but for a long time I found the performance style relatively detached and cold, conveying the intellectual content of music without much of its emotional component. All that changed when Peter Oundjian took over as first violinist. Oundjian was not quite as perfect a player as the others had been, but the warmth and humanity he brought to the group changed and improved its personality. Current first violinist Martin Beaver, a technically awesome player, has maintained Oundjian’s tradition, and I enjoy the Tokyo String Quartet’s performances greatly these days.
The program the TSQ brought to Maverick was a particularly fascinating one. It included two of Mozart’s string quintets, with guest violist Sam Quintal, a member of the Jasper Quartet that has been mentored by the Tokyo. Sandwiched between the Mozart quintets was the rarely heard String Quartet No. 1 by Karol Szymanowski.
Mozart’s Quintet in C Minor, K. 406, sounds like string music, even though it’s not. It’s Mozart’s own arrangement of his Serenade in C Minor, K. 388, originally for wind octet. The transformation is amazing and very successful – and since we rarely get to hear wind octet concerts these days, it’s a welcome chance to hear this superbly powerful and moving music. The performance at Maverick was completely successful. Quintal fitted very comfortably into the ensemble, which played throughout with great intensity, never overdone. The Menuetto was beautifully lyrical, the final Allegro very well paced and balanced. Bravo!
Szymanowski’s Quartet No. 1 seems to reflect the circumstances under which it was composed. It was written in 1917, just after his family’s large estate in Ukraine had been confiscated by the Communists and the family left impoverished. Each movement of the work begins sounding tonal (and the last movement ends that way), but each moves quickly into harmonically ambiguous territory, and much of the music has no clear tonal center. According to annotator Miriam Berg, Szymanowski had planned to write a fourth movement to this work, but the loss of the estate left him depressed and unable to compose for several years; so he finally published the work as a concise (about seventeen minutes) three-movement piece. It’s fascinating music, advanced for non-Viennese music of its time and imaginatively scored. There were some moments of shrillness in the performance, which might have been deliberate. Otherwise it sounded completely convincing.
The String Quintet in E Flat, K. 614, is Mozart’s last chamber work, an almost breezy farewell to a genre in which he wrote some of his greatest music. In fact, the finale is very playful, with no dark clouds of foreboding, and the playing of this movement was all smiles and good cheer. Again, uncanny ensemble work was just a tool in the service of the music, not the end in itself that it seemed to be with this group all those decades ago.
Although the Maverick Hall was jammed with listeners, the outside area was almost empty. The Tokyo Quartet usually fills Maverick to capacity, so the relatively small attendance was puzzling.
Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.