in: Reviews

April 13, 2015

Mistral’s Mission Accomplished

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Pianist Max Levinson (file photo)

Pianist Max Levinson (file photo)

Music director Julie Scolnik chose to focus Mistral’s final program of its 18th season to so-called “gypsy” or “Hungarian” music, although both terms are quite inaccurate. She wrote in her introduction that she hopes this concert (employing six musicians) will “transport you for these few hours into … a lightness of heart!” It seemed to be working for those in St Paul’s Episcopal Church on Saturday afternoon.

Mistral, like its fellow area chamber groups, aims to keep its audience happy, and returning. This goal seems to have been met, as there was not an empty seat and it did seem a happy audience indeed. For Mistral, presenting gypsy-ish music meant finding transcriptions for flute. (It is hard for the creative director to neglect her own instrument). Thus Liszt’s ever-popular, super flashy “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 opened the show in an arrangement for flute and piano by J. Bálint. Max Levinson was the afternoon’s superb pianist (on a baby grand). Mistral’s motto is “Unstuffy. Unpredictable. Unmatched.” Mission accomplished.

Steven Ledbetter, the program annotator (and occasional reviewer for this journal) writes wisely of the Liszt Rhapsodies and Brahms Dances that followed. To Liszt, gypsy music was Hungarian music. Liszt collected from printed and manuscript sources several hundred “Hungarian melodies” during his patriotic mood while there in 1839. Some of these tunes show up in his Hungarian Rhapsodies (1846-47). Scholars have since shown that what Liszt considered “gypsy” were fashionable pieces performed of well-off Hungarian families in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—songs no less by identifiable composers. The principal music in this rhapsody is actually Rumanian, not Hungarian.

My favorite pieces and players came next in three (Nos. 16, 11, 5) of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances for piano-four hands, in which Sophie Scolnik-Brower played the top part and Levinson the lower. I have always had a huge fondness for these pieces, which I know intimately from Julius Katchen’s and Jean Pierre Marty’s recording in the 1960s. Kudos for programming these!

Julie Scolnik has hired both her cellist son, Sasha, and her pianist daughter Sophie for this series, and the results have been superb. I hope to hear them both again soon. I had missed Sophie when she played with the Borromeo Quartet recently. She is wonderful. The three (of 21) Hungarian Dances were, happily, also “unstuffy.”

When you are a harpist, it’s hard to hear Ravel’s Tzigane (Gypsy) Concert Rhapsody for violin and piano with “just” piano accompaniment—sans its fabulously showy (and difficult) harp cadenza from Ravel’s orchestration. But the next best thing was hearing Max Levinson play with just the right measure of Ravelian pizazz and “gypsy” flair. The excellent, unflappable violinist was Sarita Kwok.

Violinist Sarita Kwok (file photo)

Violinist Sarita Kwok (file photo)

“Czárdás” (arr. for strings & flute) by Vittorio Monti was played very well by Julie Scolnik, accompanied by violinist Kwok, violist Stephanie Fong, and (B.S.O.) cellist Mickey Katz. Written abound 1904, it apparently was used by Sylvia Fine in her comic composition “The Little Fiddle (Symphony for Unstrung Tongue)” as performed by her husband, Danny Kaye, in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The second half began with six panelists answering questions deposited in a box during intermission, “town hall” style. Scolnik’s loyal audience seemed to like being part of the process, but I was anxious to hear more Brahms.

The one predictable event of the afternoon was having the honor of ending the program fall to Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25; the last movement is about as “tziganerisch” as it gets, so unforgettable, in fact, that I imagine many in every audience recalled their favorite performances. Due in large part to Mickey Katz’s beautiful cello playing and Levinson’s finely gauged gradations in sound, tempo and excitement, Brahms left us a rousing ending to a lovely concert.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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