in: Reviews

January 24, 2013

Fiber and Gristle Flavor High Point

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The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s mission is to present an “annual series of concerts and educational events for listeners ranging from connoisseurs to chamber music newcomers of all ages. Performing repertoire from over three centuries, and numerous premieres by living composers, CMS offers programs curated to provide listeners a comprehensive perspective on the art of chamber music.” While not venturing into the realm of living composers on this occasion, the players brought two well-known gems of the chamber music repertoire, Beethoven’s Trio in C Minor for violin, viola & cello, Op. 9, No. 3 and Mozart’s Quintet in G Minor for 2 violins, 2 violas, & cello, KV. 516 to sandwich the unexpected high point of the afternoon, Martinů’s Duo No. 2 for violin & viola, H. 331. CMS was outstanding Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall.

The opening Beethoven trio featured violinist Sean Lee, violist Daniel Philips, and cellist Nicholas Canellaki. Beethoven’s quartet literature is certainly a staple of the repertoire, but his Op. 9 no 3 trio is so well written that one never misses the 2nd violin. How odd and revolutionary this piece must have seemed to its first audiences. Beethoven’s accent placements on the 2nd or last beat of the measure create surprise and disruption of phrases, and the CMS players did a great job of bringing them out. To be able to hear Beethoven as though it were fresh is a real gift. Lee’s violin playing had a very sweet tone, and Philips knows that the motoric eighth note passages often relegated to the viola have as much, if not more, to do with the shaping of a phrase than does the melody. The third movement, Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace, stood out as each player was an equal partner in mayhem. Mendelssohn’s scherzos owe much to Beethoven here.

Martinů may not be everyone’s meat, but he is one of my favorite composers. His harmonic language has a Bohemian flavor, but with a lot of fiber and even a bit of gristle; sort of a Dvorak on steroids. A violinist himself, his string writing is challenging, but idiomatic, and a delight when conquered. The Duo No. 2 demonstrates all of this admirably, and it was in the hands of masters. Nicolas Dautricourt may well be a once in a generation violinist. He has all the necessary ingredients, charm, charisma, matinee idol good looks and hair, but most importantly, he can play the instrument. He was well matched in the outstanding viola playing of Hsin-Yun Huang, familiar to audiences in these parts as a former violist of the Borromeo Quartet. After a humorous bit of by play getting the stand to the right height (Mr. Dautricourt is considerably taller than Ms. Huang), seemingly disarming the audience, it was as though a match had been set to dry tinder. From the second Ms. Huang’s bow hit the viola to the end of the movement, one could scarcely breathe. The violin and viola wheeled like matched chariot horses through sinuous canonic passages, with give and take and matched tone so perfect, at times one couldn’t tell which was the violin and which the viola. A few bow hairs gave their lives to the fury, but it was well worth it. If an opportunity presents itself to hear this piece by these players, do not miss it. The Lento and Allegro movements yielded equal treasures. Just, wow.

Mozart’s Quintet was an excellent choice to conclude the concert. The double violas allowed Mozart to expand his voicing, at times creating two competing trios, especially at the opening of the movement. It also makes the viola an equal partner in melody, since the 2nd viola takes up much of the tempo and shaping work which is often the violist’s lot. From many beautiful moments, Canellakis’s rich pizzicato passage in the Adagio of the fourth movement stood out.

True to the CMS mission, there were audience members of all ages present, from tweens to retirees. They all got a treat.

Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.

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