If asked to select a program of 20th-century chamber music, one could hardly have bettered the lineup for the October 1 concert by the NC School of the Arts Chamber Music Society, given in Watson Hall. The theme, "Shostakovich and His Contemporaries," juxtaposed two of the composer's finest works with intriguing pieces by Prokofiev and Stravinsky.
After welcoming words, concert organizer Lawrence Dillon explained the choice of Igor Stravinsky's brief "Elegie" (1944) for solo viola. It was selected as a memorial tribute to those who suffered losses from the ravages of the recent hurricanes. He aptly described it as "a note of quiet reflection and solemnity"; it was composed in memory of Alphonse Onnou, a founder of the Pro Arte String Quartet. In Stravinsky, Eric Walter White describes it as " a two-part invention in ternary form..., a kind of chant played above a simple flowing accompaniment." The NCSA's Ulrich Eichenauer, a member of the Mendelssohn Quartet, delivered the four-minute piece with simple eloquence, managing to evoke mourning and suggest consolation –or at least resignation – while never broaching sentimentality.
The horrors of Nazi atrocities haunt the Second Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 67 (1944), by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was composed to honor the memory of the composer's closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky. Shostakovich wrote to his friend's widow that he was "indebted to (Sollertinsky) for all of [his] growth." The performance was by pianist Allison Gagnon, violinist Kevin Lawrence, and cellist Zvi Plesser. During the high harmonics for solo cello, intonation fleetingly slipped, but otherwise Plesser's rich-toned cello sound was welcome as it blended with his colleagues or shone in solo lines. Gagnon's piano part was strongly delineated and was perfectly balanced at all times. The string players brought such intensity to the sardonic second movement scherzo that they skirted just short of sounding "scrappy." The devastating Largo featured aching wails from the cello and some excellent work from violinist Lawrence during the composer's reeling Jewish theme. Following the "dance of death" that is the concluding allegretto, there was stunned silence before the members of the audience leaped to their feet to reward the deeply moving performance.
Some scores are so piquant that every good performance is irresistible. Such a work is Sergei Prokofiev's Quintet in g minor, Op. 39, for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and doublebass, composed in 1924. Its six movements are derived from the score of his ballet, Trapeze, which featured a circus setting and was composed for a traveling ballet company. Strong evidence of the influence of Stravinsky is evident in the choice of instruments and the harmonic-rhythmic style. More than once, an insistent part for the violin suggested the well-known and infectious solo refrain from L'Histoire du soldat, while the woodwind parts hinted strongly the sound of Stravinsky's Octet. Some of the Triad's best musicians brought tight ensemble and rhythmic vitality to the Prokofiev. Winston-Salem Symphony principals John Ellis, oboe, and Lynn Peters, bass, were joined by GSO principal clarinetist Kelly Burke and two NCSA faculty members – violinist Joseph Genualdi and violist Eichenauer. Among the many tangy duets were the pairing of bass and clarinet in the first movement; also noteworthy was a passage for the oboe, set against tremolo strings in the fourth. My favorite solo is the "basso profundo" rumbling that opens the third movement, where the bassist bows some extraordinary low notes.
While Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio has achieved basic repertory status – this was its third regional appearance within a month – his Piano Quintet in g minor, Op. 57 (1940), is seldom done. The NCSA forces played the Quintet with commitment and closely-matched ensemble that would have been the envy of any well-established touring team. Besides the extended solo for piano that opens the work, the keyboard has a vital role throughout. In a display of mastery of Baroque methods, the second movement is dominated by a slow, muted string fugue. The motoric scherzo has a catchy main theme that has made it a popular encore. Some of the finest string writing is found in the Intermezzo, with its deep, insistent bass line of cello pizzicatos, duets involving different combinations, and a violin solo with exposed high notes. The light textures and melodies of the finale belie its ultimate ambiguity. Eric Larsen's pianism was breathtaking throughout. Genualdi gave a master class in flawless intonation and perceptive phrasing, and Lawrence's second violin part was characterized strongly, as were Eichenauer's and Plesser's lines. I have never heard a better performance in the concert hall or on recordings.
Kudos to whomever tunes the pianos for NCSA!
For more information about Shostakovich, I recommend Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel E. Fay, and the fascinating oral histories in Shostakovich A Life Remembered by Elizabeth Wilson.
Note: Allow extra time to get to NCSA performances due to realignment of roads in the vicinity of the campus.