Miriam Fried and strings students from Ravinia’s Steans Institute performed a well-planned concert covering three eras of chamber music at Calderwood Hall on Sunday with interestingly mixed results.
Let’s start with what they did best, Arnold Schönberg’s Op. 4 Sextet for Strings, Verklärte Nacht. Composed in 1899 on a provocative poem by Dehmer [here], it was a major milestone in Schönberg’s career; controversial at its premiere in 1902 it became one of his most popular compositions. The composer brought the two major influences on his early work, Brahms and Wagner, into his own unique combination of contrapuntal and chromatic styles in this post romantic effusion. All six of the afternoon’s performers were on stage to perform it: Yoo Jin Jang and Miriam Fried, violins, Leah Ferguson and Steven Laraia, violas, Oliver Aldort and SuJin Lee, cellos. As though carried by the expressive force of Schönberg’s piece, the ensemble blended their voices with great effectiveness. The first section, Zwei menschen gehen durch, was rendered as a wonderfully brooding, cold and lunar night. Laraia’s slightly harsh sound contributed to a feeling of dark foreboding, while Ferguson’s viola was full of lyricism. In the second section, “Ich trag ein kind”, the separate voices jostled vividly to convey inner agony, despair and a fatal sense of having lost all possibility of happiness through an unforgivable fault. The third section was the most memorable as the players brought out its nihilistic character and succeeded in making it truly terrifying. Through dissonances and fragmentation we heard a dialog in which condemnation becomes increasingly inevitable, Ferguson’s viola powerfully evoking a descent into darkness. This terror was necessary for the fourth section to have its full impact, with Aldort’s cello rising slowly in a gesture of forgiveness, bestowing peace. The final section was marvelous, full of ethereal grace and warmth, light penetrating the darkness in a pervasive transfiguration, each instrumental voice being affected in turn and redeemed. The existentialist elements in Schönberg’s piece were vividly conveyed, along with the sense of the soul’s exposure to nihilism and the unhoped-for metaphysical redemption through forgiveness. In this early Modernist piece, Fried’s students had no difficulty finding eloquent moments of blended coherence, as though thoroughly comfortable in Schönberg’s world.
We now go back to the middle piece in the program, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, played by Fried (1st violin), Jang, Laraia and Lee. Written in 1827 when Mendelssohn was 18 years old, it stems simultaneously from the composer’s discovery of Beethoven’s late quartets and from his discovery of the wound of romantic love. Here, some limitations became apparent. The first movement was certainly emotional and expressive, but the students seemed to be wrestling with the dynamics and played with such violence that it was more nearly Schönberg than Mendelssohn. The second movement, adagio non lento, sounded a bit muddy, although the fugal elements were well played. The intermezzo worked well; led by Fried’s solo violin with pizzicato in the other strings, it brought us the most beautiful moments in the piece. The trio section was delightfully Mendelssohnian, youthful, mysterious and filled with fitful magic. The open cadence and cadential material were treated with great feeling and effectiveness. The fourth and final movement, however, was more brutalist than dramatic, as the loud dynamics sounded coarse. Instead of a Romantic piece conveying the heart’s exposure, through love, to being rejected or betrayed, we were given an angst-ridden Mendelssohn with over-emphasized dissonances.
Similar issues affected the opening piece, Boccherini’s String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, no. 5, played by Jang, Fried, Ferguson, Lee and Aldort. Although the opening andantino mosso (amoroso) was nicely given a sorrowful tinge, the sound was muffled and strained. In the ensuing allegro e con spirito the individual voices didn’t quite manage to coalesce. The third movement, the celebrated minuet, worked well, graceful and nicely touched by sadness, as though interpreting Boccherini to be aware of all that must remain unsaid in a poised, genteel world. The overall effect of the minuet was quite moving. The final movement rondeau was marred by centrifugal forces that impeded harmonious ensemble playing.
What we learned from listening to these valiant students attempt the Boccherini was that it is a very difficult work to play. It requires a maturity of restraint and years of experience working together. As Elizabeth Le Guin points out in her recent book on Boccherini, the rigor of muscular training that is required to produce the composer’s light-hearted, graceful and apparently effortless sound flies in the face of our own modern preference for natural bodily motions. Conversely, it is precisely those natural bodily motions that gave the Schönberg such immediate expressiveness and force.