Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Diverse program and spectacular musicianship as Chamber Music Northwest continues

Tuesday July 7th saw a performance by a number of well-known musicians at the Catlin Gabel School as part of Chamber Music Northwest's summer festival. Mandolin expert Chris Thile and violinist Leila Josefowicz, among others, took part in a program entitled the 'Bach-Haydn-Mendelssohn Loop,' the title a reference to 'looping,' a technique used in electronic music.

The night opened with a fascinating transcription of a Haydn piano sonata for violin, piano and cello with Thile playing the mandolin in place of the violin. In Trio in G Major for Violin (Mandolin) Viola and Cello after Piano Sonata Hob. XVI: 40 the blend was superb, the performance the very epitome of high classical delicacy and elegance. Balance between the players was key, and this was spot on with Paul Neubauer, violist, and Fred Sherry, cellist, keeping their more powerful sounding instruments under wraps in a superb fashion. The mandolin with its thin, silvery sound and rapid decay can easily be subsumed by more powerful instruments but Neubauer and Sherry never allowed this to happen. Consequently, Thile was free to demonstrate his brilliant technique and sparkling finesse. After the first movement a smattering of applause broke out at the sheer animation and perfection of Thile's playing.

John Adams Shaker Loops for String Septet (1978) was next, featuring Josefowicz on first violin. This was a programmatic work, meant to portray some aspects of charismatic Shaker worship ceremonies. Very minimal harmonically and melodically, it consisted of tutti tremolo in complex patterns that slowly built in infinitesimal yet measurable dynamic gradations, eventually reaching the climax of an extended crescendo with a rhythmic, cleaver-like hacking as if a final paroxysm had suddenly felled an ecstatic congregant who lay supine on the floor. The movements were linked, and the next began with strange squeaks and wails that morphed into a hive of wildly buzzing bees that became still again. Sighing glissandi from one instrument then another, starkly contrasting yet gently executed, formed an important textural break. This withering, almost non-stop torrent of shifting sonic patterns that continued for almost a half hour was an exercise in the will to continue for both performers and listeners alike. It was truly a difficult undertaking, but the performers responded with bravura.

The opening of the second half marked the second time in a little over a week that I heard a live performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048. In contrast to the historically informed performance at last week's Oregon Bach Festival, Tuesday night was a fresh arrangement by Rob Moose that substituted one fretted, plucked instrument in each of the three groups that make up this concerto (a mandolin substituted for a violin, a banjo for a viola and guitar for cello). The playing was by and large excellent. A slackening of the tempo occurred during the third movement, but the group seemed to sense it and brought it roaring back to life. It was also occasionally plagued by intonation issues but in all was invigorating and innovative.

The night closed with Mendelssohn's Sextet in D Major for Piano, Violin, Two Violas, Cello and Double Bass, Op. 110. The work really served as a miniature concerto highlighting Anna Polonsky's exceptional skills at the piano. Her playing was so leggieremente it felt like singing. The tempo was fierce and Polonsky seemed to be in a world of her own; the strings were having a conversation while the piano thundered and whispered in its own monologue, with Polonsky displaying supreme command of all registers of her instrument. The work was bookended by a pair of Allegro Vivace movements, and Polonsky's spritely dexterity was utterly astounding, as was the flawless accompaniment. The air is truly rarefied at CMNW, where a piece like this can be played this perfectly at this level of artistry. It was a simply exceptional interpretation. Bassist Paul Kowert deserves special mention for performing in every piece except for the opening of this wildly diverse evening.

NOTE: Quite often there are observations or insights from a particular performance that don't quite belong in a more formal review. As a consequence, I have decided to start writing a series called SideNotes at my own blog, Musical Oozings. I won't necessarily post a SideNote for every review, but when I do, I will simply link to it at the end of the review, saying "See SideNote here." The first one is about how I almost go to meet my mandolin hero Chris Thile.

--L. W.

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