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On the heels of the recent visit of the Shanghai Quartet, chamber music lovers had a second chance to sample a new ensemble on July 24 when the Elements String Quartet played to a moderate house in Dana Auditorium. The quartet was founded in the summer of 1999 and is based in the New York metropolitan area. The EMF program reflected an eclectic and expansive view of the literature. The personnel are EMF Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, second violinist Evan Mirapaul, cellist Peter Seidenberg and violist Danielle Farina. All have extensive chamber music experience; Multer has been first violinist of the Oxford Quartet while Farina was in the Lark Quartet. Multer twists and grimaces nearly as much as Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence Quartet while Farina swings her viola about constantly. Some found this to be too much needless distraction. Mirapaul gave excellent brief and witty comments before each piece was played. However his humorous assertion that a Duke University study had found that 100% of people don't like chamber music could scarcely be credible. For decades, hundreds of Triangle music lovers have known not to allow their subscriptions to Durham's Chamber Arts series lapse. Now in its 57th year, it is the most successful series in the state.
The nearly conventional first half of the concert opened with a good standard interpretation of Haydn's Quartet in E-flat, Op. 64/6. Balances and phrasing were good. More than in some well-known ensembles, care was taken of the humorous parts of the last two movements. Multer's intonation was fine in the extreme high notes in the slow movement. Had I not heard an even finer performance by the Borromeo Quartet at Duke last month, reviewed by a CVNC colleague, I would have praised this one more.
Shostakovich's moving tribute to the founding second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, Vasily Shirinsky, came next. Quartet No. 11 has seven short movements played without pause. The stark sound world of the composer was well executed. Mirapaul drew attention to the two-note repetitions in the "Humoresque" movement, saying that in Russian folklore, this imitation of the cuckoo evoked the myth that the number sounded gave the years of life left. Shostakovich's quartets ought to be programmed as often as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
The second half of the concert was reminiscent of one given by the Tokyo Quartet a few seasons ago in which they combined short works with quartet movements by Mendelssohn. Mirapaul had transcribed three works for string quartet: Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, S.539, the sixth number from Rachmaninoff's Vespers (which section is the Russian equivalent of Ave Maria), and Mendelssohn's Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 37/3. The two organ works adapted very well. The Mendelssohn gave all four players equal chances to shine. The Rachmaninoff was displayed somewhat the same mood as Barber's overworked Adagio. The highlight of the evening was a surprisingly original sounding "Orientale," from Glazunov's Suite in C, Op. 35. Crimean folksongs were used effectively in a work that alternated a singing line with suddenly faster dance-like sections. It was delightful.
The players wisely put aside their expensive bows for cheap fiberglass ones for four "Specimens from The Dead Man" by John Zorn. After enduring these, I would recommend that future players save their fine instruments, too, and use cheap props! The "Nocturne" had sounds similar to drilling coupled with the tortured sounds like wood being crudely abused. I would rather hear Daffy Duck and Porky Pig do marathon performances of Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon" than suffer any more "specimens." The work was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and dedicated to Robert Mapplethorpe. Its sound world certainly paralleled the visual world of the photographer. Multer commented that the quartet had thought that the music was about one thing but, after mastering it, had discovered that its meaning is entirely different. He said it was an adult subject they couldn't discuss from the stage but that people could ask them about it later.
The Elements Quartet has an ongoing commissioning project involving brief settings by many different contemporary composers inspired by a favorite photo. When complete, the music will be played while the pictures are projected. A sample in sound only was given by a performance of Hollis Taylor's "Corfu '72." This reflected her influences from a mixture of folk, jazz and traditional cultures. The final product ought to be quite eclectic.
At the quartet's web site ( http://www.elementsquartet.com/ ) are excerpts from a new CD, recorded live in New York City and Budapest. It's odd that there would be applause after the first movement of Mendelssohn's Op. 44/1 quartet! Both the cutting- (dare I say sawing- ?) edge Zorn "Nocturne" and the folk-like Glazunov "Orientale" are included. The CD is available at the EMF souvenir table during the festival for $20.
During welcome rain showers on July 25, Dana Auditorium was packed for a concert by the all-student Eastern Symphony Orchestra, ably directed and very well prepared by Scott Sandmeier. His interpretation of Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto was stirring. The phrasing and balances were excellent and subtle use was made of a wide dynamic range. The string choirs were in fine form and very much together, most of the time. The horns, too, were good. Soloist Gideon Rubin was magnificent in the rhetorical argument of his part, in which nothing was generalized. His approach reminded me of Claude Frank, and it doesn't get much better than that!
Shostakovich's too-little-programmed Symphony No. 1 served as an ideal vehicle to display the fine musical qualities of the student section leaders as well as the whole ensemble. Sandmeier's interpretation was well argued and the composer's distinctive sound world was convincingly recreated. Splendid solos were given by the principal clarinet, oboe, trumpet, cello, and, not least, the able Concertmistress. The timpanist was rock solid throughout and superb in the shattering last movement.
On July 27, Dana Auditorium was well filled for an intriguing program of French music and a double dose of double bass virtuosity. The restrained guest director of the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra was Maximiano Valdés, Principal Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias in Spain, who has recently completed a ten-year tenure as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. The double bass soloist was Edgar Meyer, an amazing technician and an innovative composer. The Nashville-based musician combines classical traditions with blues, jazz and country music.
Valdés opened the concert with a standard reading of the lovely Suite from Fauré incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80. The Prelude began too loudly. Fine discreet solos were given by several principals: cellist Neal Cary, violinist Jeffrey Multer, oboist Eric Olson, flutist Les Roettges, and harpist Anna Kate Mackle. "La Fileuse" and "Sicilienne" were the most successful sections. This year's program notes, by Steven Ledbetter, are unusually good. It was fascinating to read that Fauré wrote seventeen selections as incidental music to this play. Beyond these four selections has anyone ever explored the other thirteen?
Meyer's speed and agility were breathtaking in his own Bass Concerto in D (1993). Sony's website advises that "this bass concerto covers six octaves plus one note and goes down to low C." Michael Liebowitz writes (for http://Classicstoday.com/) that "Bluegrass fusion simply is Meyer's shtick," rather like the use of folk music by Bartók and Dvorák, adding, "What makes these pieces enjoyable..., however, is the way in which Meyer artfully places these blues riffs within the context of classical music." The Concerto opens with really low notes on the solo bass set against quiet cellos and orchestral basses. After the violins took up the low strings part, Meyer played precisely in the bass's highest register. Following extraordinary explorations of the extremes of the bass's range in the opening movement, the second was more lyrical. A soulful song-like melody, played by the soloist in a high register that allowed the bass to sound like a cello, was accompanied by pizzicato strings. A dialog with clarinetist Shannon Scott was memorable. After a faster and more rhythmic section with strings and horns, the quieter bass song of the opening returned before the unbelievably fast last movement began, without a pause. It was astounding to watch just how fast Meyer could cover the extreme ranges of the bass fingerboard.
Composer Giovanni Bottesini was both a great bass virtuoso and conductor who was close to Verdi. He led the world premiere of Aïda in Egypt. His Second Concerto, in B Minor, is typical of Italian music of the 19th century. Scored for string orchestra, the bass is very much a solo singer, with simple accompaniment. All of the virtues of Meyer's playing of his own work were evident in his realization of his predecessor's music.
Valdés then directed a good standard interpretation of Debussy's "La Mer." All the sections of the orchestra were in top form, and great care was lavished on bringing out instrumental color. Multer and Cary had fine solos. With robust brass in the last movement, the waves crashed on a very rocky shore! The conductor was recalled four times and had the many fine section soloists take their share of the applause.