An all-string sextet program was a change of pace for the Arts Council of Moore County's Classical Concert Series members in the intimate Sunrise Theater. Like many string quartet ensembles who rotate the violin players, Concertante rotates all six players. Concertante consists of a core of six superb string players to which additional instrumentalists, such as a pianist, can be added in order to perform a repertoire ranging from duos to octets. The core players for this concert were violinists Xiao-Dong Wang and Ittai Shapira, violists Danielle Farina and Rachel Shapiro, and cellists Alexis Pia Gerlach and Zvi Plesser. Triad music lovers may have recognized Farina as an associate principal violist in the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra for the past several seasons while cellist Plesser has been on the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Violinists Wang and Shapira and cellist Gerlach have been heard on the Four Seasons Music Festival at East Carolina University.
The opera Capriccio (1942) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) opens with the playing of an off-stage string sextet. The idealist love rivals of the Countess, the poet Olivier and the musician Flamand, serve as an excuse to explore the age-old arguments about music, words, and drama. Their rose-colored views are constantly challenged by the cynical, practical theater director La Roche. The work is considered a connoisseur's opera, an extended "conversation" about its elements. The 10 minute sextet is like an overheard conversation with a gentle opening, somewhat more intense middle, and a return to the quiet mood of the opening. Concertante played with gorgeous tone and warmth with Wang's violin, Gerlach's cello, and Shapiro's viola rising briefly above the ensemble like various speakers making a point.
Antonín Dvorák ((1841-1904) composed his Sextet in A Op. 48 (1878) in fourteen days at about the same time he became famous with his Slavonic dances and Slavonic rhapsodies. The first movement is a sunny treatment of three contrasting themes. In place of the traditional slow movement, the second movement is Dvorák's first use of the term "dumka." Dumka is an elegiac folksong from Eastern Europe, described in Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (1978) as "a type of instrumental music involving sudden changes from melancholy to exuberance." The fast, short third movement is a foot-stomping furiant. The finale is a set of shimmering variations bubbling over with folk-like tunes. Concertante's ensemble was precise and tight, with a wide range of dynamics, and hairpin changes of tempos executed flawlessly.
Cellist Plesser, who served to present brief oral comments before each piece, said if Haydn was the father of the string quartet, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was the father of the string sextet. He drew attention to the long-breathed melodies, especially in the first movement of String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18 (1860), and the composer's adventuresome harmonics in the last movement. The first movement is lyrical with Ländler-like rhythms, while the slow movement is one of Brahms' masterful set of variations based heavily upon Baroque models. The scherzo is almost Haydnesque in its classicism while the finale is a lively rondo. Cellist Gerlach phrased the seemingly endless opening melody superbly. Concertante gave the sextet a commanding interpretation, exploring a myriad of nuances without losing an over-arching concept of the work. I have heard many fine performances of this sextet, mostly by ad hoc ensembles, but few brought the level of refinement Concertante did. Brahms' string textures can easily become too thick but Concertante conjured up just the right balance. Their choice of tempos was ideal and their rhythms were well sprung. They well earned the warm standing ovation they received. May they return to the series again!