With the decline of formal concert hall attendance, as well as a recent history of casual settings for chamber music performance, it surprises me that more virtuosos do not cultivate new spaces in which audiences can experience chamber music classics. Founded in 2014, the Virtuoso Soloists of New York dedicate themselves to musically diverse programs that stretch chamber music norms. Featuring rugs, minimalist bench seats, an aesthetic of sound gear hung on stage, Inman Square’s Lilypad cozily welcomed a young crowd, for a refreshing night of play.
A few minutes after 8pm, the performers ended their conversations with friends and colleagues, many with drinks in hand, and took to the stage. Yoni Battat welcomed us with an ebullient and drawn out “Hello!” After offering thanks, he explained the program’s “Transatlantic” title: two European classics, with contemporary works from Portugal, Italy, and Boston. A group of six—two pianists, string trio, and oboist—VSNY rotated configurations throughout the night.
Cellist Gracie Keith, though a bit reserved, offered an anecdote about the circumstances of the creation their first piece, Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor, Op. 9 No. 3. Before penning this famous work, Beethoven apparently wrote piano variations for the count who commissioned this string trio. Low on cash, the count he compensated Beethoven with a horse. Apparently Beethoven had more important work to do: the horse died shortly afterwards. Keith chuckled and shrugged as to why Beethoven wrote for this count again, giving us this classic trio.
I was disappointed with the performance. Tempi and intonation, especially from violinist Dillion Robb, indicated that they either could have used some more rehearsal time or that their nerves bested them. The first movement, though at moments strongly rendered, betrayed some sloppy and half-hearted passage work. However, Battat stood out on viola. His gracious physical movements, and alternatingly whimsical and intense facial expressions evinced the interpretive choices the trio could have emulated a bit stronger. In addition his technical performance suffered from fewer flaws.
Overall, they failed live up to their name. The execution sounded attenuated as to shaping and balancing the intricacies of the shifting textures and virtuosic writing. Beside the technical challenges, what disappointed me most was the missing sweetness and emotional depth from Robb and Keith, especially in the intimate, quiet moments of the second movement. Transitions between movements would have lacked clarity in purpose even without the the noisy air conditioner. Nonetheless, last moment spoke beautifully, thanks to a sincere and playful spirit and a less anxious tempo. All seemed to settle in and enjoy themselves more; Robb even cracked a smile.
Battat introduced Boston University professor J.H. Wallace, the composer of the next piece. Casually dressed, with an unpretentious demeanor, the composer warmly addressed the crowd. Writing Triskele, a trio for oboe, viola and piano four-hands, for the ensemble’s tour in and around Vienna last summer, Wallace averred that he was exploring his lyrical side, eschewing some of the darkness and complexity that typifies his style. With joviality he noted “for all you Schoenberg and Brahms fans,” this three section work has developing variation.
Despite a strong and convincing performance, I enjoyed the piece far less than Brahms and (at least pre-serial) Schoenberg; I reacted similarly to hearing Feldman. Though it had depth and a fair share of crunchy dissonances, I couldn’t discover pleasure in its organization. Building energies tended to diffuse before momentum carried it to transformation. While I enjoyed the suspenseful harmonies, and certain of the cacophonous chaotic climaxes, some transformations confounded me.
Andrade and Carpenedo shared the piano well, matching tone well on some long arpeggios, and giving a cohesive background to the work’s affect. They affirmatively rendered some percussive piano writing, which a few times coalesced into some brooding piano ostinato, some of the more richly enjoyable moments of the piece.
Compared to the Wallace, Carrapataso’s Espelho da Alma (roughly translated to “Window of the Soul”) felt like a saccharine aural vacation. Lyrical, pretty, and assuredly tonal, the piece was almost too easy to listen to. Despite the work’s lack of depth, the performers admirably committed themselves to this piano quartet. Heavily quoting Portuguese folk tunes, I heard as well a Mozart C major sonata quote as an unexpected coda to a piece’s final cadence. Drifting off into a minor key, it earned a chuckle from the crowd, though I wasn’t sure whether laugh. In the third of the five short movements, Keith delivered a duet with piano with depth and sensitivity, giving the emotional range and attention to detail to make the relatively simple music feel profound. Overall the performers sold the sweet but predictable; work quite well.
After a brief intermission, and brandishing her bubbly personality, Miller shone brightly in Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major K. 730/368b, without a doubt, the sharpest piece on the program. Everyone enjoyed her tone, crisp round through all registers, dedication to the piece’s emotional journey, and mind-boggling control over the virtuosic ornaments and runs. The less dramatic music and mostly accompanimental role suited the strings well. The less emotionally complex style suited their personalities better and had far fewer intonation issues.
The thrilling piano quartet Les Apparitions by Italian composer Pagotto closed the show. From the start, the ensemble, who will be releasing a recording of the composer’s works in the summer, made their emotional connection to Pagotto’s compositional stylings manifest. According to Carpenedo, the first movement depicts the morning—breakfast, espresso, waking up—and the second seeks to capture the hectic feeling of working life, including the commute. Evoking nostalgia, angst, and aggression this multifarious work sat in the happy (and enthralling) midpoint between the extremes of other two contemporary pieces.
Mostly Apparitions sounded Neo-Romantic, with hints of more sinister non-functional chromaticism. At times the syncopation and rhythmic vitality teetered on the edge of jazziness, though it had a blend of elements that were notably its own. Pagotto showed no fear of presenting simple musical elements such as a root position triad in both hands of the piano. Yet he built his own complex language around that, as his overlapped rhythms and elided phrases would fall apart. I found it easy to lose myself in the mesmerizing oscillating textures that organically grew and shrunk as they shifted focus among instruments.
In the reality of such an unapologetically casual space, the ensemble’s final dramatic chord collided with a blaring police siren; a few flashes of red light enhanced the final scene. Nearly all the crowd of apparent friends and former classmates stood to acknowledge a rewarding evening.