This fourth from final concert of the Eighth Annual Carolina Summer Music Festival took place in the excellent acoustics and remarkably inviting space of Knollwood Baptist Church. The setting sunlight on the wonderful old oaks was made visible through the remarkable large transparent windows. This was just icing on the experience. Two Spanish rarities served as appetizers for an anchor of the chamber music repertoire for clarinet and strings – Mozart's K.581.
The string quartet consisted of first violinist Matvey Lapin, second violinist Nonoko Okada, violist Simon Ertz, and cellist Ryan Graebert. Lapin is based in Chapel Hill and active as an HIP (Historically Informed Performer), while Okada and Ertz are members of both the Winston-Salem Symphony and Greensboro Symphony besides their freelance activities. Graebert is an active freelancer. Clarinetist Oskar Espina-Ruiz has an international reputation and is currently on faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Spanish composer Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was a native of the Andalusia region. He studied with Vincent d'Indy and was initially influenced by French Impressionism. Encounters with Albéniz and de Falla inspired Turina to draw upon folk music and rhythms from his native land for inspiration. His La Oración del Torero (The Toreador's Prayer) was originally composed for a Spanish lute quartet before he scored it for string quartet. Other arrangements exist for orchestra, saxophone quartet, and even violin and piano. The shimmering strings that open the short 8'25'' piece recalled Turina's early impressionism before being spiced with varied pizzicatos and ornaments derived from the sound of guitars. A dreamy episode was followed by brisk rhythms evoking the bullfight before hushed music suggestive of the toreador's prayer. The Carolina Summer Music Festival quartet played with a well-integrated ensemble that belied their ad hoc assemblage. Intonation was excellent and the players blended and phrased beautifully with very refined control of dynamics.
Espina-Ruiz has become an expert on the music of Julián Menéndez (1895-1975). Besides being a legendary clarinet virtuoso of the Madrid Symphony, the meager online resources I could find report Menéndez's "compositions represent a unique style of writing and greatly expanded the technical and expressive possibilities of the clarinet." Menéndez's Sueño y Ballet for clarinet and string quartet (composed 1951, arranged by Espina-Ruiz 2015) consists of two movements, the first moody and slow with sudden rapid, showy passages for clarinet, and a second, fast and lively with more complex scoring with remarkable exploitation of the clarinet's full range. The string players were superb but Espina-Ruiz's dexterity was astonishing, with wonderfully clean rapid passages combined with a warm, glowing tone.
The clarinet quintets of Brahms and Mozart are centerpieces of the instrument's repertoire. Mozart's Quintet in A, K. 581 was composed in 1789 for clarinetist Anton Stadler whose playing inspired several masterful late works. It's four movements consist of Allegro, Larghetto, Menuetto, and Allegretto con variationi. A wistful second theme, shared between the first violin and clarinet in the first movement, blossoms into a long following melody for the clarinet supported by magical muted strings in the miraculous second movement. The third movement is an unusually intense minuet and features two trios, the second a rustic dance led by the clarinet. The finale – six variations on an insolent theme – juxtaposes playful decorations or ornamentations of the theme with deeper, more soulful ones. Espina-Ruiz and his string colleagues conjured a breathtaking performance. The clarinetist's breath control and ability to spin out a seamless melodic line was wonderful. The string players' ensemble was excellent as was their refined palette of dynamics. The wonderful mournful viola lament in the third variation was richly rendered by Ertz.