Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Chamber Music Northwest opens with robust Haydn and Mendelssohn

Haydn and Mendelssohn have been dead for a very long time, but their presence is felt every time their music is played by virtuosic musicians like the ones who took the stage last night (June 23) at Chamber Music Northwest’s opening concert series. I attended the concert at Catlin Gabel School and found the each performance inspiring, because the performers got inside the music.

The Orion String Quartet kicked off the evening with Haydn’s Quartet for Strings in B-Flat Major (aka “Sunrise”), which he wrote sometime after 1796 when he was 64 years old. The members of the Orion String Quartet (violinists Todd and Daniel Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy) mined every nook and cranny of this piece with their insightful playing. I loved the furious fiddling, the suspension of sound between themes, the sweet introspection in the second movement and how the foursome could achieve a blissful quietness as if it were second nature, the roughshod dance of the third movement, and the blistering finale, which the ensemble, at one point, pulled back organically as if they had a mind meld. Ah, Haydn himself would’ve loved it.

The second piece on the program, Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 2 in C Minor for Piano and Strings (Op. 66), featured pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, violinist Ida Kavafian, and cellist Peter Wiley. They sculpted a lively interpretation of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece. The contrast between their gentle, almost lullaby-like playing in the second movement with the animated Scherzo of the third sounded terrific, and the finale got the audience to respond with thunderous applause.

I always look forward to McDermott for her incisive playing and because of the incredible range of expressions on her face as she listens to her colleagues. At the end of the second movement, there was some discussion amongst the ensemble. After a pause, Kavafian then turned to the audience and said that Wiley used to play that movement with his mother and his brother.

After intermission the Orion String Quartet was joined by violist Paul Neubauer, violinist Jun Iwasaki, Kavafian, and Wiley for a joyful performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat Major for Strings, Op. 20. The ensemble almost rocked out on this piece, especially with Iwasaki who seemed to animate everyone with his infectious gestures. I enjoyed the way that the music traveled within the ensemble, especially when a brief passage became sort of a hot potato that was exchanged from one instrumentalist to the next flawlessly. (Or like when a lateral pass between several players happens at a football game... you have to see it to believe it.) The fugue-like theme in the last movement was a high-octane work-out for all of the instrumentalists, and the audience fully embraced the collaborative achievement of ensemble at the very end of the piece.

The program notes, written by Dr. Richard E. Rodda, pointed out that Mendelssohn wrote this piece when he was 16 years old, and that he followed it up the next year with his famous Overture to Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I recall that Alex Ross, in a New Yorker magazine piece earlier this year, pointed to these facts and stated that Mendelssohn wrote mature music at a much earlier age than did Mozart. Ergo, Mendelssohn beat Mozart in the child-prodigy-composing claim to fame.

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