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Roaring Approval for the Latest from Rockport


Marc-Andre Hamelin (file photo)

Life offered up moments of absolute musical perfection as well as visual beauty as we wended on our way to the architecturally amazing Shalin Liu Performance Center for Sunday’s concert featuring pianist Marc-André Hamelin and the Balourdet String Quartet. Formed in 2018 at Rice University in Houston, the quartet is currently in residence at New England Conservatory. Its name comes from Antoine Balourdet, chef at the Hotel St. Bernard and “beloved member of the Taos School of Music community.” Yes, we agree that fine cuisine is an art.

 The Balourdet commissioned Tunisian/Canadian composer Karim Al-Zand’s (b. 1970) Strange Machines in 2022. Before this opener violinist Justin DeFilippis delivered a charming introduction. Each of the three ‘machines’, we learned, pokes fun at earlier classical music techniques, i.e., Alberti, Goldberg, not necessarily JSB, more like Rube, perhaps, and Mannheim. He mentioned Mozart’s use of the Alberti bass, as well as JSB’s G. Variations―its quodlibet and aria materialized at the end of the second movement―and lastly, the dramatic dynamic range of the Mannheim school. Strange Machines, a marvelous, beautifully crafted piece alludes texturally and rhythmically to Bartok, Ligeti, and Ives. The quartet relished it and easily maneuvered through its technical and musical challenges. Moments of frenzy preceded the sweetest dolce; sometimes we heard what seemed like the clash of 2 or 3 pieces being played simultaneously. All in good fun, and a sophisticated spoof of the highest order.

 Rather than give Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2, a mawkish, sentimental reading, the Balourdet projected it in a full, robust sound, with impeccable balance, strong leadership from the first violin (Justin DeFilippis), lovely cello and viola solos (Russell Houston and Benjamin Zannoni) throughout, and agile support from second violin Angela Bae, radiant in bright blue flowing chiffon. (The men looked handsome in their dark suits). The characteristic Scherzo movement came across magically. The final Presto agitato, with its lovely chromatic melody allowing for significant viola and cello solos (Zannoni and Houston), never lost momentum, and yet it passed by as lightly as a summer breeze. The audience responded ecstatically.

 A brief historical perspective might be helpful to understand the closing work, Franck’s Piano Quintet. With his frequent modulations, Franck seems to be working in a chromatic style, almost, but not quite, ‘breaking out’ of clearly defined tonality. Think of the chromatic theme in the Symphonic Variations. Here, however, the texture, harmonic complexity and rich sound never falter. We may have been pointed in this direction via the chromatic theme of the last movement of the Mendelssohn.

One doesn’t hear this Piano Quintet performed as often as Schubert’s Trout or Schumann’s Piano Quintet. Perhaps because the work is treacherous rhythmically and technically, it requires a pianist hors normes (exceptional, extraordinary). Marc-André Hamelin is just such. Wearing a soft, white summer jacket, he came onstage to join the Balourdet in a performance that we will long remember. For this performance violinists switched chairs and Angela Bae played first and Justin DeFilippis, second. There was no loss of tonal beauty or leadership; Bae made an especially deeply felt impression in her new role.

 In the opening movement, molto moderato quasi lento, the first violin begins with a double-dotted rhythmic motif, fortissimo/dramatico, absolutely in time. The piano follows, after this frenzied beginning, with an arpeggiated ‘espressivo.’ Hamelin shaped a beautiful singing line with just enough rhythmic flexibility to approach rubato. Here Franck introduces the chromatic melody that will form the sinew of the quintet, especially prominently in the last movement. We heard a big, sound, with an unrelenting rhythmic momentum throughout. Hamelin’s powerful, weighted sonorities always supporting the strings

In spite of its rich, glorious piano part, Hamelin chose to avoid turning the quintet into a piano concerto with string accompaniment. Rather, the pianist participated as an equal: another chamber musician within the whole. The second movement, lento, con molto sentimento, begins with a gorgeous theme, beautifully presented by Angela Bae. A mystery and even a sweet sound prevailed, as each instrument carried the melody in turn. And Hamelin released the pedal imperceptibly, ending the lento without a twang, and always respecting the sound of the ensemble. The last movement, allegro non troppo, ma con fuoco (fast and fiery) with its persistent 16th-note motif in the strings against dotted chords in the piano part, created a final breathlessness and excitement. In triple meter, the final measures of the final movement waltzed with vibrant and dramatic life.

 We roared our approval.

Parisian-born pianist Lucienne Davidson entered the Juilliard school when she was nine. Since making her debut at Weill Recital Hall, she has performed as soloist, chamber musician, and with orchestra.


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