in: Reviews

July 30, 2018

Shanghai Runs Out of Steam

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When I started attending Maverick Concerts in the 1970s, it was common to have a substantial number of people sitting in the outdoor section. The size of the audience has shrunk a bit since that time, and now a concert is considered “sold out” when the entire indoor section is full. Sometimes, on a good day, some of the attendance still spills outdoors. And a few people actually prefer to sit there, apparently preferring the summer air to the indoor acoustics.

On Sunday the Maverick experienced a rare, true sell-out. Apparently, the idea that the Shanghai Quartet’s  25th annual appearance in the series proved to be a huge draw. Every seat in both sections filled, and by concert time a few people even sat in folding chairs just outside the outdoor seating area.

Though Mendelssohn wrote his Quartet No. 1, in E-flat Major, Op. 12, at the age of 20, this most precocious of composers was already in his artistic prime. The foursome, having the full measure of this thoroughly pleasing but not profound music, gave the opener a precise, smooth, and animated take, with a truly lovely reading of the finale. The large audience roared.

Shanghai String Quartet

To celebrate the 80th birthday of Joan Tower, who occasionally visits Maverick from her home across the Hudson, the Shanghai Quartet joined with bassoonist Peter Kolkay for Red Maple, named for the wood from which most bassoons are made. Kolkay, for whom Tower wrote the quintet, was billed in the Maverick handout as “probably the finest bassoonist currently before the American public.” I’m not fond of such superlatives, but I can’t think of a bassoonist whose playing I’d prefer. I do take issue with Maverick’s annotator, who wrote that the work “has no discernible structure.” To me it sounded rather tightly constructed; an opening motif played by the bassoon goes through all kinds of meaningful manipulations, with the string music frequently seeming to radiate outward from the bassoon’s lines. It also has lots of Tower’s characteristic motor energy. In short, we heard a very attractive piece, superlatively performed. Tower introduced Red Maple and basked in enthusiastic applause.

The concert concluded with a magnificent profundity. Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13, in B-flat Major, Op. 130, satisfies even with the substitution of Beethoven’s later, much shorter finale for the “Grosse Fuge.” (The Colorado Quartet used to play the “Grosse Fuge” and use the replacement movement for an encore, an excellent practice.) As usual, the Shanghai Quartet began with creamy, homogeneous sound, punctuated by good accents. But by the second movement, clear articulations went missing. The balance among voices remained fine, but by the fourth movement undercharacterized, bland playing began to trouble me. Was it too subtle? Or was the finale actually rather perfunctory? Beethoven’s late outpouring contains a great deal of intense emotion, and players, while they don’t always have to be heart-on-sleeve, do need to project that intensity. In this performance, regretfully, they didn’t.

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.

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