The Boston Conservatory’s String Masters Series event on April 24 was dedicated to honoring violinist Joseph Silverstein, longtime Boston luminary who recently solidified his relationship with the Conservatory by officially joining the faculty. The celebratory “welcome home” program (as Music Division Director Dr. Karl Paulnack put it) took the form of three chamber works which Silverstein performed with a rotating cast of faculty and students — a nod to three generations of mentorship and a declaration of commitment to the kind of educational community that BoCo promotes. The musicians’ respect for Silverstein and joy in playing shone throughout the evening, creating a performance that far overcame with emotional power any disparities in age, experience, or skill.
Dr. Paulnack is BoCo’s most eloquent spokesman; an address by him can be counted on to straighten the shoulders and shore up the hearts of all but the very most jaded musician — and let’s be honest: what music-lover’s heart hasn’t needed an occasional shoring-up recently? Paulnack opened the evening with a brief mix of personal reflection, community salute, and archetypal superimposition, likening Silverstein to a tribal elder returning home from an epic journey. His point, that communities have a deep-seated need for certain kinds of strengthening relationships, speaks as deeply to today’s young artist confronted with a bewildering world as it must have to young people over the centuries looking out into unknown and possibly hostile landscapes.
The accuracy of Silverstein’s reputation as a “strong, benevolent authority figure” was apparent from the start of the program, Boccherini’s Quintet in A Major, op. 60, No. 3. Unlike the composer’s “cello quintets” favored by cello virtuosi, this one featured pairs of violins and violas and the primacy of the first violin part. Silverstein radiated the stillness and self-possession of the very experienced performer who, like a senior member of a long-lasting marriage, is in love with the music and at peace with himself. No grand sweeps of the arm or flourishes of the scroll: he drew the group’s attention magnetically from the rather amorphous introduction, through the agile Allegro gaio and meandering minuet to the whimsical final Allegretto. Physically, Silverstein is a paragon of sustainable violin playing, and his loose vibrato and seemingly effortless, barely tactile ornamentation was as equally pleasurable to watch as his younger colleagues’ energy. The duo of faculty violist Rictor Noren and his student, senior Steven Sergi, brought a special smile to one’s face with the obvious relish with which they emerged in tandem from their sensitive accompaniment to offer lusty thematic commentary. The quintet of players had clearly reached a groove by the last movement, in which they rendered the lilting rhythm of the theme with remarkable concentration, unity, and subtlety. Silverstein also demonstrated another of Paulnack’s assertions — that of the power of the authority figure willing to engage in risk — with the very softness of his playing. The barely audible pianissimo of his ricocheted bowing challenged the ensemble and the audience to listen ever more carefully.
Undoubtedly there are many audience members for whom the other two pieces on the program, behemoths of the romantic chamber repertoire, carry a lot of personal emotional weight. Silverstein led Brahms’s Sextet in G Major, op. 36 with rare restraint, resulting in a well-shaped, quietly moving performance. Awe for his willingness to favor the lower dynamic ranges grew over the course of the piece — for a first violinist, especially one in a low-string-heavy ensemble, to constantly risk being overtaken in volume proves true confidence, and the willingness to lead by example, indeed. The long, drawn-out opening was saved from tenuousness, however, by strong solos, most notably from well-known faculty cellist Rhonda Rider. Her student Taide Carpio-Prieto held down the bass with precision and, in the Scherzo, the kind of exaggerated, hyper-graceful pizzicati favored by very elegant and passionate young cellists. On top of this, Silverstein and faculty violinist Markus Placci achieved an impressively ethereal sound. Of the entire group, Placci was perhaps the greatest pleasure to watch, joy and attentiveness evident on his face, his whole body radiating both enthusiasm and refinement. The Poco Adagio featured another slow and somewhat vague buildup before finally flowering in an explosive fugue; Silverstein still maintained a sweet, never strident, sound in the highest and most energetic passages. Violist Patricia McCarty and her student Madison Johnson joined the cellists for passages of lushly Brahmsian inner-voice harmonic layering, mingled with more uniformly beautiful pizzicati. Luxuriant harmonies were exchanged for the serene yet heart-wrenching melody of the final Poco Allegro; Silverstein reveled in the beauty and complexity of the low register, again drawing palpable respect and joy from his collaborators.
Understated strength and passion were again the unifying forces behind Mendelssohn’s beloved Octet, op. 20. This grouping displayed perhaps the most clearly disparate musicians in terms of style and personality, but also the most remarkable cohesion. Creating a cohesive chamber group from eight musicians is no small feat; neither is creating one by drawing on a mix of established artists and hotshot students, on whom the honor is plainly conferred as a mark of status. I’ve heard performances by these sorts of groups before, and what I honestly expected was terrific individual playing but poor ensemble work — an expectation that was happily and utterly demolished. The explanation again must have lain in Silverstein’s quiet leadership; the overwhelming refrain at the following reception was how easy it was to play with him — an ease which speaks not of laziness but of the kind of humbling necessary to be part of a collective, to abandon the performer’s constant awareness of self in favor of common forces not directly in anyone’s control. That said, each performer still got a chance to pipe up with his or her individual voice, an aim which the antiphonal seating arrangement and Mendelssohn’s exquisitely combined part-writing enhanced. Third violinist and Master’s student Tom Hofmann, seated across the stage from Silverstein, nimbly led the violin countercharges, while faculty violist Lila Brown and graduate student Faith Jones joined forces from the far corners in the bounding, celebratory Scherzo. In the cello section, faculty cellist Andrew Mark offered finely crafted lyricism and graduate student Nora Karakousoglou led the gruff, furious fugue of the Presto.
The Mendelssohn, epically long with all of its repeats, was, like the Brahms, an exhaustive and finally triumphant journey, and at the risk of engaging in the dewy-eyed poeticism endemic to chamber music devotees, I’ll acknowledge that it was a powerful metaphor for what a life in music is ultimately about: achieving — through collaboration, a willingness to learn, and willingness to help — a beauty greater than the sum of its human parts. Cheers to Joseph Silverstein’s inspiration and Boston Conservatory’s continued striving to be a community that enables just that.