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A Genuine Saturday Night Special


Shai Wosner (file photo)

Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s genuine Saturday Night Special joined the Isidore Quartet and the extraordinary pianist Shai Wosner. This has been a Rockport summer of exceptionally fine string quartets, and people showed up in droves to hear this one, who, until last year, was totally unknown. They named themselves after the famed Juilliard Quartet’s famed violinist Isidore Cohen, as they had close ties with members of the current day Juilliard. Shai Wosner has been VERY busy the past year as a member of the (Pinchas) Zuckerman Trio, and playing concerti and chamber music just about everywhere to great acclaim.

The quartet’s terrific players number Phoenix Avalon and Adrian Steele, violins (taking turns as firsts; Devin Moore, viola; and Joshua McClendon, cello. After being coached at Julliard, the quartet went on to win the ultra-prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition last summer, a vehicle for immediately launching big careers for young quartets. They have played 70 concerts since winning last summer. I am generally anti-competitions, but this one seems worthwhile

The foursome opened with one of the pieces from the Banff competition that helped catapult them to an international career, The Disappearance of Lisa Gherardini, by Sri Lankan-born composer Dinuk Wijeratne (b. 1978). He wrote:

This virtuoso musical escapade for string quartet is inspired by the audacious, real-life theft if Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre Museum in 1911. We tend to forget that Lisa was a real person. As I worked on this music, I thought less about the masterly technique and artistry of the portrait than I did about Lisa herself. I imagined her as a character who moved through time- from humble obscurity, through a sudden and mysterious disappearance to the kind of over-hyped fame that attracts 30,000 visitors daily. I can’t help but wonder whether Lisa would have wanted all this attention not to mention from all the selfie-takers.

The composer advised  the contestants, “Be creative! This should be a vehicle for your personality!” And it certainly proved to be just that for the Isidore Quartet, who amused us immensely with this piece’s theatricality. Their panache included a few winning shenanigans (a siren sound from the violin, three strings standing up and then going quiet). The piece unfolds in three sections with two themes, Mona Lisa and the notorious heist. It’s sassy, highly enjoyable, and the Isidore Quartet played the living daylights out of it. I would love to hear- and see- them perform it again.

Britten’s three-movement String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Opus 36 (1945) bore an uncanny resemblance with the foggy weather outside, in which the water, boats, and nature greyed out to chiaroscuro. One thought of all of Britten’s music that involved water (his folksong arrangement of ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew,’ his opera Peter Grimes, his writing Ceremony of Carols on a boat, etc.). Into this black and white world, the quartet gave an ultra-sensitive reading of one of Britten’s most famous works. The second quartet owes its existence to its commemorating the 250th anniversary Henry Purcell’s death in 1695. It premiered on November 21, 1945, precisely 250 years to-the-day after Purcell’s death. Britten was 32 years old at the time.

It should be noted that Britten was a violist, and this evening’s violist, Devin Moore, sounded just wonderful. Britten had accompanied violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a performing trip to German concentration camps; he was unable to speak of this event until shortly before his death. The second movement Vivace, featuring a bewitching violin solo, displayed the quartet’s brilliant ensemble work. The mood, perhaps reflecting his wartime experiences, is dark and sinister, and played with mutes on all four instruments. Finally, in the third movement with the Purcellian title of “Chacony,” Britten wrote 21 variations in three groups of six and a final one of three. At the end of each of the six there were virtuoso cadenzas for cello, then, viola, then violin. We witnessed a thoughtful and exceedingly well-played traversal.

After intermission, Israeli-American pianist Shai Wosner joined in for an amazing take on Brahms’s stunning Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34 for two violins, viola, cello and piano. It had a rather unusual gestation:

In 1862, Brahms began by scoring his Op. 34 for string quintet with two cellos, perhaps influenced by the success of Schubert’s work of that form. Although Clara Schumann had only good things to say about the piece, Joseph Joachim, the great violinist and friend of Brahms, claimed that the string parts were simply too difficult. Taking his friend’s advice, Brahms rescored the piece as a sonata for two pianos. Now Clara Schumann objected, finding that the piece sounded too much like the arrangement that it was and suggesting that Brahms could solve this problem by rewriting it again, now as a piano quintet. While not completely dissatisfied with his piano duo (which he eventually published as Op. 34b), Brahms wisely followed Clara’s counsel to produce one of the three or four best-known and best-loved piano quintets today. (From Program notes by Jon Kochavi for the Sun Valley Music Festival

The ensemble was tight and all the playing stunning, full of clarity and nuance. After having heard Wosner dozens of times on YouTube in his in his marvelous recordings of Schubert, we took great pleasure in experiencing him live. The quintet gave a moving, trenchant account. How I wish they would add their interpretation to the dozens of recordings already available. Don’t pass up any chances to hear the Isidore and/or Shai Wosner.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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  1. The first half of this concert was indeed amazing. The Isidore were a standout at the Banff Competition, and did not disappoint at SLPC. It is amazing that such a young group – both in terms of the musicians’ ages and the amount of time they have been playing together – can function as a whole (the “ four people but one quartet” concept); communicate well with one another, seemingly on the fly; be aware of the way the Britten has been played for ages, yet make it fresh.

    The eagerly anticipated second half was quite a different story. The Isidore still shone, communicated with each other, played musically, obviously know what a phrase is. The pianist was another story. For one thing, his eyes rarely left the sheet music. He seemed in a world all his own, and unaware of the music being played on stage right beside him.

    Look around, Isidores, there are pianists out there who would be a good fit for you.

    Comment by Cecilia — July 5, 2023 at 10:40 am

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