Antonin Dvořák opened and closed this weekend’s final program of Mohawk Trail Concerts’ 43rd season. It also featured the débuts of several area artists. Pianists Anne Koscielny and Estela Olevsky opened with four of the composer’s 16 Slavonic Dances (eight each in 1878 and 1886) in the original version for piano duet: in F, op. 46/4, in A–flat, op. 72/8, in g, op. 46/8, and in C, op. 46/1, thus concluding with the work’s rousing opener. They also did a bit of a dance of their own: Koscielny took the upper register and Olevsky the lower one and the pedals for the first, then they exchanged positions for the middle pair, and resumed their original ones for the finale. These bright works suited them well, and both musicians allowed the music’s exuberance to shine without adding any of their own gestural effusion, and shine it did, to the audience’s great pleasure. The third selection involved some intricate interweaving of the right hand of the lower register player with the left one of the upper register’s that was also elegantly dance-like in its own right. The whole was an impeccable and very satisfying performance.
The remainder of the first half was devoted to a set of art songs by three different composers, showcasing the talents of Greenfield-based, UMass Amherst graduate mezzo-soprano Eileen Ruby with Olevsky, UMass Amherst professor of piano emerita. They opened with “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs” by John Cage, another composer for whom this year is a celebratory milestone, the centennial of his birth. Composed in 1942, it is based on excerpts from a passage in James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” that were chosen and arranged, not entirely in their original sequence, for their alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm. The sounds were based on a three-note tone cluster that allowed the singer some freedom of expression and interpretation and the accompaniment consisted of tapping on the keyboard cover and the top of the case above the keyboard. While this description may not sound particularly appealing, the effect was absolutely enchanting. This was followed by a classic, lush, late-Romantic mélodie from 1877 whose music follows, supports, and underscores the text in a traditional manner: Ernest Chausson’s Le Temps des lilas, the evening’s nod to the French repertoire that the season has been showcasing. The final piece was Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s Five Poems from Ancient China and Japan, op. 10, from 1916. Using the pentatonic scale, the piece effectively evokes Oriental melodies as well as tones, each song differently from the others. Ruby’s enunciation was outstanding throughout, as was her expressive delivery. It was a very creatively devised set of diverse pieces that fit surprisingly well together and was superbly rendered, also making Ruby’s stunning début both charming and impressive.
The entire second half was devoted to Dvořák’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in A, op. 81 (1887) featuring Olevsky with the Bahn Quartet, also making its début on the series. Its members are graduates of UMass Amherst, and its name is a compilation of the initials of the first names of the players: Alicia Casey and Benjamin Van Vliet, violins, Hannah Van der Swaagh, viola, and Nicole Fizznoglia, ’cello. They have been playing together for about four years now.
If launching a new ensemble in the perhaps overpopulated and certainly highly competitive world of the string quartet weren’t difficult enough, taking on a work that is so well known might well be seen as terrifyingly daunting. The Bahn rose magnificently to the challenge. The musicians’ intonation, precision, communication, and ensemble were all extraordinary, even in the quieter, slower passages where weaknesses always tend to reveal themselves glaringly — the second movement, dumka, would be the most susceptible place in this work, and there were none here. They wowed their listeners with the quality of their playing, and without the addition of any gratuitous body movements to underscore it. It was a fitting climax both to an evening of music making of the finest quality and to a fine season.