Halcyon Music gave the seventh of eight concerts in its inaugural festival in Portsmouth New Hampshire last night at historical St. John’s Episcopal Church, featuring all 20 of the musicians who have been living and playing together for two weeks. It seemed like luxury casting, since only one of the players was to appear in more than one of the pieces—two duos, one quartet, and one octet. Yet having an assortment of 20 excellent artists available on each of the eight nights of the festival was also emblematic of Artistic Director Heng-Jin Park’s vision for an intensive summer camp where players, with their families, would live and work together. Park told us that the result would be a depth and spirituality that musicians and audiences alike could share.
And she would have been right if the audiences could have participated in the immersion. But from a single concert, which certainly was well-played, one could not discern the benefits of the plan. Had I been the impresario, I would have invited the audience to pitch tent and stay for the entire two weeks, breaking bread with musicians and attending the rehearsals. That might have been something special.
Violinist extraordinaire Irina Muresanu introduced the “Dueling Instruments” theme which Park gave her carte blanche to curate. While we expected some piratical clashing of swords, what we mostly got were genial etudes with épées.
Park and Lolita Lisovskay-Sayevich began with a set of Brahms’s four-hand waltzes. There were nice lilt, differentiated voicing, and brightly projected tone, all clearly outcomes of the cooperative two weeks, but there could have been more excitement, outgoingness and personality, the final A-flat minor waltz in particular needing to be more patiently milked.
Bartók’s Duets for Two Violas (after the Duets for Two Violins) is listed in the Boosey catalog as difficulty level 1. This once again meant that the dueling wasn’t scary: depicted were calm domesticity and moods with such titles as Teasing, Sorry, and Pillow Dancing. Violists Robert Myer and Shokrukh Sadikov matched tones well and resonated nicely in St. John’s sumptuous acoustic.
The three-movement Quartet for Violins by Polish neoclassical colorist Granżyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) dispensed a pleasant geniality. Since the pitch range of a quartet of violins is notably narrower than a conventional string quartet, she resorted for variety to Franckian chromaticism, albeit brighter and cheerier; indeed, the four players concluded with perfection of ensemble in an exuberant, optimistic Molto Allegro, with none of the angst that might be expected from a Peoples’ Artist living behind the Iron Curtain.
The one undisputed desert island composition was the Bach Chaconne, in this instance arranged for four cellos by Laszlo Varga (b. 1924). In the original violin version, or for that matter in the various piano solos, there certainly are powerful strokes that evoke broadswords as well as other lofty technical requirements that make manifest the spiritual and technical struggles and duels. Subdued by four cellos, the piece retains Bach’s profound spirituality, but of a quieter mien. In her continuing unaccompanied show “Four Strings Around the World,” Irina Muresanu’s execution of this violinistic Everest has rays of stained glass aplenty, along with fire. Bach’s work is inexhaustible enough to be offered alongside the piano transcriptions by Brahms and Busoni in addition to this version. That would have made for interesting programming, and Park would have certainly been up to the keyboard demands.
Louis Spohr’s engaging novelty, the Double Quartet for Eight Strings in D Minor Op. 65, is one of four he wrote for those forces. It would be misleading to call it an octet since each foursome maintains its integrity, with virtually no doubling. Because this first such example of Spohr’s is also something of a concerto for violin 1 in quartet 1, it’s easy to see why Muresanu chose it. Standing (all violins and violas stood) as a vision in a caryatidesque green gown, she dominated our attention, giving an extra degree of showmanship and projection that was less present in the otherwise charming, accurate but somewhat tame musicmaking. Though Miki-Sophia Cloud as the opposite first violinist often elegantly matched Muresanu’s calls with answers in the lower registers, the evening was Muresanu’s.