Saturday night, January 16th, marked the inaugural concert of a new Portland chamber music group that goes by the name of 45th Parallel. Its goal is to make a home for chamber music by talented local musicians, to “bring Portland’s rich chamber music culture out of the living room and onto the stage.” Last night’s concert at the Old Church was rich indeed, featuring a sort of A-list of some of Portland’s finest string players, in this case all members of the Oregon Symphony (and other groups). The evening featured three works, by de Bériot, Verdi and Tchaikovsky, all of which works were influenced by opera or ballet.
The evening opened with a Duo Concertante in G minor (Op. 57 no. 1) by Charles de Bériot (1802-1870). 45th Parallel Artistic Director Gregory Ewer and OSO Concertmaster Jun Iwasaki delivered an amazingly full-bodied sound, one belying the fact that there were only two violins playing. The opening Moderato (there was nothing moderate about this work) featured dramatic multi-stops and a see-sawing melody that felt at times like a Donizetti overture. Ewer and Iwasaki displayed magnificent synchronicity and unity of purpose in this virtuosic exposition. The Adagio opened like a barcarolle, the players reveling in the unashamed sentimentality of the work. At one point Iwasaki leapt into the air and thumped down onto the stage, highlighting an intense moment in the third movement.
The String Quartet in E minor by Verdi followed, and Iwasaki and Ewer were joined by Charles Noble on viola and Justin Kagan on cello. Before the work started Ewer cautioned that even though the work was composed by Verdi the audience shouldn’t expect an operatic sound…that Verdi composed it as a work for four equal strings, not a serenade with accompaniment. Nevertheless, Verdi’s genius as a melodist couldn’t long be contained, and the opening Allegro was broken by sublime, beatific moments that spoke out from the dense texture and then were gone again, like sudden, brief sunbursts on an otherwise gray day. However, there were times during the maniacally-paced middle section of the movement where the intonation didn’t always hold up, especially among the upper three voices.
An animated, oft-mysterious Andantino was next, alternating between an extremely spare palate and thick layering. The sudden, difficult transitions between these ideas were seamless and exciting to hear. Given the breakneck pace of the Allegro, the idea of a closing Prestissimo seemed almost scary. It featured delightful pizzicato sections where Ewer and Iwasaki managed a delicate plunking that sounded almost like an African thumb piano. A dizzyingly difficult Scherzo-Fuga closed out the Verdi; the entire work was a study in radical contrasts and these musicians were definitely up to the task.
After the intermission the group was joined by cellist Trevor Fitzpatrick and violist Viorel Benjenaru for a sextet by Tchaikovsky (Op. 70) called Souvenir de Florence that bore no resemblance to Florentine music. The work opened with a full promise of bombast and romantic brashness, and the group delivered in spectacular fashion. Iwasaki on first violin was magnificent, bringing a glorious, singing tone to bear. The swooping Russian string sound was affecting and cantabile, and there was an incredible swelling-receding effect initiated by extreme hairpin dynamics that was redolent with excitement. There were moments that felt like a vision of impending peril worthy of Francesca da Rimini.
The duet between violin and cello in the Adagio cantabile came off nicely, with Kagan exploring an especially full sonority on the cello. These dialogue moments were interrupted by verdant, homophonic interludes that were broad and nuanced, never lapsing into the dull or monolithic which would have been easy to do. The closing movements were based on Russian folk themes; the Alegretto was especially memorable, taking the form of a lively dance based on a beautiful yet scowling folk tune with tricky imitative entrances.
45th Parallel obviously set out to make a statement last night. If that statement was: we are here, we are bold, we can play with the best of them, then the message came across loud and clear. It would be hard to classify this concert as anything other than a smashing success, and judging from the audience reaction it seems like there will probably be large and enthusiastic crowds accompanying any future endeavors by this group.