in: Reviews

August 6, 2013

Voices of Phoenicia and Strings of Leipzig

by

The annual Phoenicia Festival of the Voice presented Verdi’s Rigoletto last night. Phoenicia is a small hamlet on the banks of the Esopus, the renowned trout stream in Ulster County NY. A modest-sized church there has an extensive field behind, where three hyperbolic paraboloid tents rise in triumph. The larger one is the stage and the others are for the public. Intervening spaces are packed with more music-lovers, unless the weather is bad. Last night, it was sublime. Before the opera, Carey Harrison, orator and author, and Justin Kolb, pianist, regaled us with musings and music of Liszt and the two Vs, Verdi and Wagner. The only piece performed that was actually written by any of those composers was a polka of Wagner’s, a spritely dance. Verdi’s operatic music consisted of florid arrangements for piano in the style of Liszt, by Hermann Cohen, 1820-1871, a piano prodigy and Liszt student. This ‘prelude’ to the opera was charming, informative and, as Harrison delivered straight lines in the nonchalant British way, outright hilarious.

Rigoletto itself was wonderful! Forget about some intonation problems, about several out-of-tune instruments, about the lack of sets, even about questions relating to orchestral tempos and balance. The musicians, dynamically led by Steven White, and the cast of Barry Banks as the Duke, Nancy Allen Lundy as Gilda, Louis Otey as Rigoletto, Bradley Smoak as Sparafucile, Carla Dirlikov as Maddalena, Cori Ellison as Giovanna, Lily Arbisser as Countess Ceprano, Shirin Eskandani as Page, Marco Cammarota as Borsa, Robert Balonek as Marullo, and the chorus of young men, were all professional. The sound system is greatly improved since last year’s Butterfly, and the overhead screen with English translation wasn’t obtrusive.

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Stefan Arzberger and Tilman Buning, violinists, Ivo Bauer, violist, and Matthias Moosdorf, cello, aka the Leipzig String Quartet, presented a program of Beethoven, Tan Dun and Franck for Maverick devotees (see last week’s review here), and it was accepted with high approval. Leipzig has a huge sound and their colors range from cold objectivity to warmth that excludes the maudlin. Beethoven’s Opus 18 no.5, which illustrates development toward his own voice while still showing influences of Haydn, provided the Leipzigers with robust, lyrical music. I’ve preferred a slightly more delicate reading, but Leipzig persuaded me to buy theirs.

The next piece, which had been billed as Lutoslawski’s 1964 Quartet, was replaced because of time considerations with Tan Dun’s Eight Colors, for Quartet, c. 1994. Tan Dun is from China and resides now in the US. His music is avant-garde: pizzicato, glissando, extremely sharp dissonance, scratching, overtones, slapping strings, and, perhaps most important, silences. Not all the audience was thrilled with this piece, but I was. Dun requires serious listening; silences are not a timeout. Leipzig were fantastic with this, making difficult music to ears conditioned to the classics an emotional experience. It’s worth listening to such pieces, including the unplayed Lutoslawski.

Cesar Franck’s only string quartet, in D Major, from 1889, is lengthy. The first and fourth movements are weighty, given the thick writing in which he indulges. The second and third are clearer, and the pizzicato ending of the second was a joy. Ultimately, the excellence of the Leipzig’s approach came close to redeeming the piece from its turgidity.

Jay Wenk studied Composition at Juilliard on the GI Bill, for five years,  learning was that he was a lousy composer, but his love for and interest in music have never diminished.

2 Comments

  1. The String Quartet of Cesar Franck is a masterpiece, after the Quartets if Debussy and Ravel the greatest string quartet written in France; amongst its interpreters in recordings have been the Juilliard Quartet, the Fine Arts Quartet, the Fitzwilliam Quartet, and the Ysaye Quartet of Paris, who gave a particularly memorable performance at the Maverick early in my tenure.

    Comment by Alexander Platt — August 7, 2013 at 5:53 am

  2. As regards my comment above, I would be remiss if I did not also mention the great historical recordings of the Franck Quartet: those by the Prague Quartet, in the early digital era, the Virtuoso Quartet and the London String Quartet from the 1920’s, and holy of holies, that by the Pro Arte Quartet from 1933. Clearly, many different viewpoints on a bona-fide masterwork…..those by the Prague and the Fitzwilliam, both still available, remain my favorites.

    Comment by Alexander Platt — August 9, 2013 at 6:18 am

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