Known as the birthplace of several transformative ensembles like the Emerson String Quartet, Cleveland String Quartet, Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, TASHI, and NEXUS, Marlboro Music Festival is quite different from most of its summer counterparts. Rather than bolstering structured curriculum with faculty, Marlboro mixes advanced musicians of all career stages to enhance and strengthen collaborative skills. Musicians from Marlboro’s March tour came to a close at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall on Sunday afternoon with fiery takes on Boccherini, Bartók, and Ravel that also showcased humor, expansivity, and refinement.
The afternoon brought together artists from all different stages of their careers — violinists Alexi Kenney and Tessa Lark both recently received Avery Fisher Career Grants. Pianist Zoltán Fejérvári won the 2017 Montreal International Musical Competition. Cellist Isang Enders co-founded the Gohrisch Shostakovich Festival. Cellist Christoph Richter was a member of the Cherubini String Quartet before becoming principal cellist of his chamber orchestra, Cappella Andrea Barca. Violist Kim Kashkashian is a Grammy-winning musician who was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016. Together, these artists are equals.
Boccherini’s String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No. 5 started off surprisingly nervously, missing a few harmonics and sounding tentative before launching into the Allegro con spirito with a playful pop. Violinists Kenney and Lark led the second movement, their musical chemistry evident through the two middle movements. The famous Minuetto seemed delicate but humorously tongue-in-cheek, complete with whispered harmonics envious of the first movement’s slip. The entirety of the Boccherini came off as clever and energetic, although perhaps a bit of a lean afterthought when mixed with the meatiness of the subsequent two pieces.
Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2, known for its technical and collaborative difficulties, took Lark, Kenney, Enders, and Kashkashian weeks to perfect, according to the printed notes, and it showed. Although many parts could survive on their own independently over the course of this quartet, themes are often strung together just barely, though the sheer amount of detail in the score is astounding. Moderato displayed intense communication between each musician expertly. Allegro motto capriccioso held a terrifying ferocity that was so clean, expansive but controlled, and refined. Lento, after an energetic second movement, usually comes off as exhausted, defeated, and deflated. Zoltán Kodály described this section as “suffering,” and others describe it as “funereal.” However, the group’s approach was anything but tired; every player remained intense and alert through the marathon second movement. Kashkashian very clearly led, watching and cuing with a nod and signaling for more from her players every so often, as if conducting with her eyes alone. Her teaching came through vividly, and the energy in the room crackled with electricity.
The afternoon ended with Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor, featuring Lark, Richter, and Fejérvári. Given the set-up of Calderwood Hall, I was seated closest to the piano on the first floor (with violin and cello behind the piano), so much of what I heard came directly from the piano rather than the strings. Fejérvári’s interpretation enlightened, capturing the ecstatic dance qualities of Ravel’s keyboard music. His performance was technically perfect except for the fact that he blurred with the pedal in the most bizarre places. Perhaps this was due to how close I sat to the piano, but even at the end of the Passacaglia movement, in a moment of piano solo, Fejérvári’s foot stayed rooted to the damper. Many ends to large passages also blurred. Although impressionist music lends itself to a more liberal use of such coloration, clarity should not be neglected.
Musicians from Marlboro returns to the Gardner on May 6th at 1:30 pm with works by Haydn, Penderecki, and Brahms.
Rachael Fuller is an MIT administrator who has studied piano and music theory. By night, the concertgoer is also a practicing musicologist.