The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s offbeat program on Sunday afternoon was the perfect vehicle for a swanky garden party of the imagination. There were dances by way of de Falla, tangoing Albeniz, galante Bocchherini, blues from Ravel, Paganini’s virtuosoisms for 18 strings, and a Kernis medley, “100 Greatest Dance Hits.”
Guitarist Jason Vieaux brightened the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s still controversial Calderwood. His sunniness, his spring-sweet fragility, his sparkling and placatory outshoots in Boccherini’s galante Quintet No. 4 in D Major, G448 was reason enough for “leaving” the Calderwood for a garden.
The Escher String Quartet of Barnett-Hart, Boyd, LaPointe, and Johansen was another. That Pastorale, the first movement of the Quintet, appeared perfect, too, not so much because of the composer, but because of the string players and Vieaux in such genuine tuning with each other. Yes, the cellist faltered a few times up high on the fingerboard—remember Boccherini, himself, was a cellist who liked venturing out. The closer, Fandango, especially was enjoyable visualizing champagne and swans to a resolute dance marked with castanets, still a little more cultural color from the composer.
Worrying there may be too little guitar ended with Niccolo Paganini’s Terzetta Concertante in D Major. Pierre LaPointe’s viola and Dane Johansen’s cello evened up with Vieaux’s guitar. The pizzicato strings, though, in the second movement, Minuetto, provided bright soupçons allowing Vieaux’s ever so tempting plucks and strums to take the forefront and the partiers’ total admiration. One can see why this piece, dependent as it is with melodic motives, made Paganini a name, but not as a composer, in the history books we read as music students. Valtz a Rondo also danced and entertained via a tight, fun-loving Lincoln Center-Vieaux threesome.
The increasingly touted pianist Alessio Bax put a stop to background-like party-type listening after intermission. It was as if somebody put a record on everyone recognizes and loves. That was Bax’s rejuvenation of Danza del molinero from El sombrero de tres picos. He made it sound and feel as though it were a hit tune on the all-time top whatever list of classics. And yet another smash hit he came up with, Isaac Albéniz’s popular Tango from Epaña Seis Hojas de Album (arranged by Godowsky), sounded as if Bax possessed four hands. And then there was Danza ritual delfuego, para ayuentar los malos espiritus from El Amor Brujo, in which there seemed to be three pianos and how many hands is only a guess. “This is an orchestra,” as Stan Kenton pronounced in a piece of the same name. Overwhelmingly and splendiferously offered, all three pieces came newly dressed and dancing.
Violinist Benjamin Beilman and Bax alternated serious stances with whimsical behaviors in their performance of Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Lucidity and high musicianship marked their shot at newly fashioning this sonata, one that comes with its own curiosities. Beilman’s penchant for big-tone passion delivered us right back to Calderwood Hall. In this cube, his dynamics became “clangorous.” Real bluesy licks, the soft ones, though, cornered the mood and tone of the middle movement. Eschewing that French dash or Grappelli touch, this duo did bring out the Gershwin in Ravel. They also, particularly Bax, even summoned up some Schoenberg through their going for sonic angularities.
In their own words, Escher “thinks first of the music…showcase the music not our abilities.” Add Jason Vieaux to the Escher String Quartet and it becomes inarguable that there is a very deep sensitivity to what all the members are doing. This was keenly experienced in (the unfortunately titled ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits for Guitar and String Quartet by Aaron Jay Kernis.
With drum, triangle, amplifier, rhythm making on the bodies of the instruments, sound making on the other side of the bridges, muted strings, pizzicatos, salsa, disco, and that go-to-buildup by way of the crescendo, off they went as if blinded by strobe lights on an otherwise darkened dance floor. Leaving the minuets and waltzes behind, the five classical pros morphed into a form of modernized montage, at times hard to follow, at other times low-brow jesting.