The evening opened with Beethoven's String Quartet in E-flat Major ("Harp") Op. 74 with just the string quartet: Joel Link and Bryan Lee on violin, Milena Pajaro-van-de-Stadt viola, and Camden Shaw, cello. Immediately apparent was a rich and wonderful uniformity of pitch, timbre, and timing, highlighted by a marvelously deft 'code-switching' (to borrow a linguistic term) between the numerous pizzicato and arco motives as they were handed off between instruments. With a soaring sense of purpose, the young players achieved as fulsome a sound as one could hope to hear.
Moving into the Adagio the music became a seamless pulse, an ebb and flow like an earth tide almost imperceptibly shifting the ground beneath your feet. The group exhibited a justified self-assurance--the notes were so spot on and well-executed that all technical considerations were second-nature, and all could be devoted to a deeply thoughtful rendering of the spirit of the work. Shaw played the brief, ubiquitious half-measure-or-so exposed cello coda of the Allegretto sublimely, with the cooperation of the rest of the players who graciously stepped aside time and again so the charming subito pianissimo motive could be heard. Pajaro-van-de-Stadt's viola solo was affecting and direct, and the smooth handing off of pedal points between all four voices was great fun to hear. I found myself given to involuntary smiles and chuckles for sheer delight, gloriously basking in this wonderful sea of sound.
Shifrin joined the group for the world premiere of Richard Danielpour's Clarinet Quintet, mysteriously subtitled by the composer "The Last Jew in Hamadan." The composer was on hand for the performance, and explained that his father was born in Hamadan, Iran, a city that once had a vibrant Jewish community (indeed it is reputed to be the burial place of the biblical Queen Esther) but was predicted by one writer to have only one Jew left in the city by the year 2020.
It opened with a sparking, culturally rich clarinet theme that cut through a charging agitato from the strings (Agitato con energia was the marking for the movement) with its rapid-fire melody and occasional squawks and honks. It was suggestive of a bustling, hurried life--perhaps unquiet but fascinating and lovely. Short, expressive phrases kept popping out here and there, Shifrin playing masterfully as always this ceaseless, frothing soundscape.
The Adagietto e triste began with a plaintive dirge from the clarinet over a hurdy-gurdy sound from the strings. Sinuous and melancholy--but somehow hopeful, not defeatist--it wound its way toward a fascinating tutti on one pitch, with the clarinet adding a daring color to the whole effect. Haunting doublings and dramatic seizures were hallmarks of the movement. It was a fine, original piece, and well worth a world premier at such a great festival.
The second half of the evening consisted entirely of the Clarinet Quintet in B-flat Major, Op. 34, by Carl Maria von Weber. A liquid descending scale from the clarinet kicked it off. There was a hilarious squawking high note delivered with what can only be described as comedic timing by Shifrin. A somewhat ungainly but not wholly unlovable first movement--what dramatic and contrasting stuff.
As the work moved on the group was able to make the most out of a work full of emotional moments but with a dearth of narrative cohesion--this would've been dull in lesser hands, but the skill of the musicians was such that they molded it into something worth hearing--a fine showcase for Shifrin that was capped off by a truly virtuosic finale.