in: Reviews

August 22, 2016

A Star Is Born

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Maverick_horse_Russell Platt is the twin brother of Maverick Concerts’ Music Director Alexander Platt. So it’s not surprising that Russell’s compositions occasionally show up on Maverick’s programs. But his pieces have been well-received here. And being the brother of a concert series’ music director wouldn’t in itself be enough to persuade an ensemble like the Borromeo String Quartet to learn and perform a world premiere performance of a substantial work like Platt’s Mountain Interval, a commission for the Maverick centennial. Judging from its first impression on one critic, as well as the cheering reception from the audience, we may have witnessed the debut of a piece of music that will last.

Mountain Interval draws its title, the titles of its seven movements, and much of its inspiration from the work of Robert Frost. It’s also inspired by the seven movements of Beethoven’s Op. 131. Rather than attempt to follow the interplay between words and music, I decided to settle back and let the music make its impression on me without remaining aware of any extra-musical factors–although it was easy enough to notice the divisions between movements. So I can’t do a whole lot of “reporting” on this music. But I can tell you that this work had no uninvolving stretches; it grabbed my attention from the beginning and held on tight until the end 26 minutes later. I noticed things along the way like the glowing viola tone from Mai Motobuchi in the very first movement, the great excitement generated by the Presto sixth movement, and the way the composer’s description “inconsolable” suited the sadness of the slow finale. Sometimes the continuity of the music was mysterious but it still never failed to make sense. The style of the score ranges from a kind of lyrical atonality to tonal sections which could have been written decades ago, but there is nothing stale about this music.

Obviously the advocacy of a group like the Borromeo String Quartet is a strong asset to any piece of music, whether Beethoven or Platt. And critics should know better than to predict the future. Still, the strong emotional quality of Platt’s work makes me suspect that it will be around for a while. I’m definitely planning to check out this ensemble’s livingarchive.org for a chance to hear the piece again and maybe next time I’ll try checking how each movement relates to its Frost title.

For Haydn’s Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 76, No. 6, the playing was very sharply characterized from the very beginning, with strong dynamics, very precise without crispness, excellently balanced. I hope we’re finally getting over the long-held belief that Haydn is a kind of second-rate Mozart; that was the general opinion when I was growing up, but Mozart would not have thought it made any sense. When taken as seriously as in this performance, a great Haydn Quartet seems as substantial as Mozart’s best–although that seriousness did not preclude complete expression of Haydn’s humor, which came out so vividly in the Menuetto that it had members of the audience laughing out loud.

The closer, Beethoven’s Op. 127, reminded me of an experience I had at a piano lesson with my revered teacher, the late Piero Weiss. I was playing a Beethoven Sonata and attempting to minimize the impact of arpeggio passages until I got to the “real stuff.” Weiss stopped me and said, “You have to take every note Beethoven wrote seriously. He did.” This was a performance which gave the impression that the musicians were taking every note Beethoven wrote seriously, including the passages which in other hands seem like just stuff that happens between the important moments. The opening movement, with its double-stops all around, sounded like a string orchestra. The third movement was extremely meticulous about dynamics, and the players really dug in on the heavy accents. These extreme contrasts are important to Beethoven, and it was a great pleasure to hear them taken so seriously in the midst of a truly great performance.

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