IN: Reviews

Butterflies Fluttered as Chamber Music Soared

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The Manhattan Chamber Players,* (MCP) a morphing collective of New York-based musicians who share the aim of performing the greatest works in the chamber repertoire at the highest level, opened Maverick Concerts’ 108th season on Sunday afternoon. The beautifully curated “Wind, Sun, and Water” featured Ravel, Harold Meltzer, Debussy, and the (regrettably!) little-known, late-19th-century Frenchman Jean Cras.

The concert got underway with a luminous performance of Ravel’s String Quartet, an audience favorite at the venerable and rustic “Music Chapel” in Woodstock, New York. Within the foursome’s impeccable ensemble, violist Luke Fleming—founder of the ensemble and chief soloist in the slow movement of the Ravel—achieved a simultaneously meticulous and warmly mellow syntax.

Jean Cras composes aboard ship.

New Yorker Harold Meltzer was on hand to receive a standing ovation for MCP’s reading of his Aqua for string quartet (2012). Meltzer’s many major prizes include the Pulitzer, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Prix de Rome, the Arts and Letters Music Award, and a Charles Ives Fellowship. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Koussevitzky Music Foundations have commissioned him.

Meltzer finds inspiration, he told us, in wide variety of sources, from postmodern fairy tales to messages found in fortune cookies. Aqua had its genesis in architect Jeane Gang’s 2009 Chicago skyscraper of the same name. Winsome in the MCP’s hands, Aqua sounded fluid, undulating softly but with undeniable power throughout. As the title implies, Aqua both invokes and depicts water. MCP executed the many changes of mood and direction flawlessly.

Pianist David Fung took the Maverick stage after the intermission, with Debussy’s three-piece suite “Estampes” (“Engravings,” or “Prints”) for solo piano. From the subtly mystical opening bars, through to the flash and glamour of the final few notes, the work conjures three images, one after another, with little pause between movements— “Pagodes” (Pagodas), “La soirée dans Grenade,” (Evening in Granada), and “Jardins sous la pluie” (Gardens in the Rain). Mr. Fung’s radiant, scintillating pianism evoked all these with brilliant delicacy that kept us at the edge our seats.

MCP joined Fung for the grand finale, the Piano Quintet by composer (and naval commander!) Jean Cras. We love to discover music we’ve never heard before; it can prove particularly rewarding to encounter an unknown composer. Cras was born in 1870 and made his home in the French province of Brittany. Commissioned into the French navy in 1908, he wrote much of his music on shipboard during World War One. He traveled the Atlantic and Pacific, the Mediterranean and the coast of Africa. He managed to put the notes for his Piano Quintet on paper while skippering a torpedo boat.

Much of Cras’s substantial oeuvre is shot through with the cadences and harmonies of his native Brittany. MCP and Fung brought their formidable technical prowess and inextinguishable panache to the work. What a revelation! How can it have escaped our notice? It abounds with melodies in the pentatonic mode typical of the Breton musical language, and contains many passages in unison or at the octave.

The atmosphere at the Maverick Concert Hall is utterly unique and utterly wonderful. A flight of tiny butterflies fluttered and danced around in the dappled woodland outside of the rustic building. Veteran Maverick concertgoers just shrugged them off; one greeted the onslaught as “just another moth to feed.”

*Katie Hyun, violin; Rubén Rengel, violin; Luke Fleming, viola; Andrew Janns, cello; David Fung, piano

Mary Fairchild lives in Rosendale, New York, after a long career as a host at WQXR, WNYC, WMHT (Schenectady), and WPLN (Nashville). For some 20 years Mary wrote program notes for Vladimir Feltsman’s PianoSummer at New Paltz. Before being called by Kalliope, the Muse of Eloquence and of Writing About Music, she worked as a financial editor and manager of investor relations in Wall Street.

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