Sunday, August 5, 2018

CMNW's All-Dvořák Festival Finale a mixed bag

The last concert of this year's Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival at the Lincoln Performance Hall at PSU on Sunday, July 29, was an interesting mix of the sublime and the subpar. An all-string affair as well (sure, I'll throw the piano in as a stringed instrument here), it featured one of two of the Dvořák string quartets known as the 'American,' a Sonatina for piano and violin and a Serenade for strings.

The opening work was delightful, featuring the great Jon Kimura Parker on piano and Martin Beaver, violin.  The Allegro of the Sonatina in G Major, Op 100, was beautifully cantabile, an exercise in restrained nobility. Kimura Parker's left hand is fantastic--one could listen to it alone and have a feast for the ears. He played with great deftness on the staccato themes and the lively, tinkling arpeggios were a treat. 

Next the Mir
ó Quartet played the String Quartet in F Major, Op 96.  The main theme was deliciously raspy coming from the viola, and while displaying an incredible blend and balance, the group did not lapse into overt sentimentality, but rather chose a more straightforward, concise interpretation. There was a bold sautillé from all stings on the solo parts, and masterful tension-building vis-a-vis the dynamic contrasts. There were no 'bridges to nowhere' here--the dynamic motion was laid out with a single-mindedness of purpose from the whole group.

The sentimentality that was wisely held in reserve from the first movement was spared for the Lento, where it was most warranted. Alternating between simpering tenderness and soaring passion, the rest of the strings formed a trembling music box for the mysterious cello solo. The final movement was a fine example of the thousand little things that have to go right for a great performance like this--it's not the big long moments for any one instrument that made this so memorable; it was rather like the whole group was a sort of self-accompanying concerto grosso for four strings--as though they were somehow the ripieno and concertino at the same time. That said, the anthemic theme that sang forth from Daniel Ching's violin was incredible to hear.

The problem lay in the second half of the concert, the Serenade for Strings in E major, Op 22. The overall timbre was almost fulsome, but coming from six violins, three violas, three cellos and a bass, this actually felt right. The problem was the pitch issues that plagued the first violins right from the start, and unfortunately did not let up for the entire work. If an instrument were out of tune, one would at least expect a tune-up between movements, but this never happened; the first violins just remained out of tune for the whole work.  This did nothing to help the overall effect--despite the fact that there were some lovely moments here and there, the performance was by and large emotionally flat and uninspiring. They kept giving it a valiant effort, but it never quite came together. Perhaps it was partly a question of programming--this piece was an intellectual lightweight following the mighty American quartet, but then how do you place the work for a small string symphony before a mere quartet? It honestly felt like the musicians were tired; it was the tail end of a long and I'm sure brutally difficult festival, so perhaps it was just a lapse in concentration. At any rate it's pointless to speculate as to why this was so underwhelming. I guess you can't win 'em all, and the wonderful quartet was what stuck in my head and heart long after the concert was over.

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