After having heard a “Maverick Prodigies” non-classical event unworthy of the hall, it’s a relief to declare that in terms of attendance and artistic success, the Maverick Concerts classical season in Woodstock is off to an excellent start, as the Escher String Quartet, quickly having become a favorite ensemble at Maverick, scored again with a varied and engrossing program on Sunday. The ensemble significantly tailored the quality of its sound in response to diverse material. They enrobed Schumann with rich and orchestra tones; Rorem’s 10 movements contrasted dramatically, and the Ravel took on an appropriately lean quality that never sounded thin or harsh.
The quality of sound at the beginning of the Schumann Op. 41, No. 1 in A Minor proved immediately satisfying. The opening movement also possessed momentum and strong continuity not always easy to achieve in that composer’s work. The second movement may have been the one interpretive miscalculation in the concert. Maverick’s new annotator John F. Baker drew appropriate comparisons between it and the scherzo style of Schumann’s friend Mendelssohn, but the Eschers tore into it too aggressively for the music to sound anything like Mendelssohn. They gave the subsequent Adagio with enough tenderness to please me, and the finale wound its changing course convincingly.
When I first met with Ned Rorem’s music via a Columbia LP in which the composer accompanied five singers in a selection of his songs, I didn’t like them much, especially a ridiculously setting Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” a scene in which a drunken father terrorizes a small boy, as a happy little waltz. Later, at the Maverick, I could hardly wait for Rorem’s lengthy After Reading Shakespeare for unaccompanied cello (Sharon Robinson) to end.
Yet hearing the Escher Quartet bring Rorem’s 1995 String Quartet No. 4 here for the first time pleasantly surprised me. This piece, lasting half an hour, has ten short movements inspired by Picasso paintings, and they are consistently ingenious. The idioms range from Bartókian wildness to tender lyricism and, in the finale, what sounds like a tribute to Ravel. It certainly sounded vivid and committed, as did what followed.
For Ravel’s Quartet in F Major, the Escher Quartet altered its sound drastically to produce the lean elegance appropriate to Ravel. The center of the first movement was indeed tres doux, but very sweet without becoming saccharine. The central portion of the second movement sounded super-elegant. The third, Tres lent, felt touchingly tender, and the finale came bursting out of its quiet shell. The concert courted and won great success, and the full house greeted it with an appropriate ovation.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.