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For this second virtual concert in the Asheville Chamber Music Series' 68th season, the Frisson chamber ensemble, directed by oboist Tom Gallant, performed an eclectic and fascinating program which had been recorded in one of New York City's crown jewels. The Kosciuszko Foundation's town house in New York City's Upper East Side, built in 1917 and once home to the Van Alen family, is an elegant and resonant abode, the acoustics of which reverberated robustly across virtual space. I accessed the program easily on YouTube via the instructions provided by ACMS. This concert was sponsored by Altavista Wealth Management.
The program began with the clever pairing of two works for oboe and strings, the Quartet for oboe and strings in Bb, Op. 8, No. 6, by J.C. Bach, and the Quartet for oboe and strings in F, K. 370, by Mozart, his pupil. Three Preludes for clarinet and strings by George Gershwin ended the first half; the String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 77, by Dvořák was the sole work on the second half.
Frisson is billed as "an explosive group of rising classical stars who are the best of the recent graduates of the top U.S. music schools including Juilliard, Curtis and Yale." The ensemble is comprised of both string and wind players, thereby broadening the types of repertoire they can deliver. The performers for this concert were violinists Adelya Nartadjieva and Suliman Tekalli, violist Colin Brookes, cellist Julian Schwarz, bassist Sam Suggs, clarinetist Yoonah Kim, and oboist/director Gallant. During a Q&A during intermission, the players said that preparation for this concert had been their first opportunity to rehearse together since the onset of the pandemic.
The J.C. Bach Quartet for oboe and strings was the perfect concert opener. This Bach, the 18th child and the last of 11 sons of J.S. Bach, lived and worked in Italy before finally settling in London. Dubbed the "London" or "English" Bach, he was central to musical life in London from 1762 until his death and had a profound influence on Mozart, among others. The Quartet consists of only two movements, an Allegro and Rondo, music which is charmingly similar to a divertimento in overall affect. Gallant's playing was beautifully refined and controlled, with the trio of strings (Tekalli, Brookes, and Schwarz) balanced so as not to overpower him.
For the Mozart, violinist Nartadjieva replaced Tekalli, with the rest of the players as before. Mozart had traveled to Munich in 1781 and had encountered the great orchestral players at Mannheim, among them virtuoso oboist Friedrich Ramm, whom he had previously met in 1777. Ramm must have been an incredible player, judging from the demands of Mozart's score, which is, in effect, both an oboe concerto and a chamber quartet. The three-movement format is, indeed, a concerto format, and in the opening movement, one hears Mozart's irrepressible playfulness with melodic figurations. The oboe's part, both very technical and melodious, often soaring to its highest notes, was executed brilliantly by Gallant, who was the personification of "grace under fire." The exquisite second movement, a rather intense Adagio in D minor, contained some of the most gorgeous melodic moments of the entire concert, with each phrase beautifully contained and shaped by Gallant. The concluding Rondeau: Allegro was charmingly playful with devilishly difficult passagework by Gallant tossed off as if it were nothing. The ensemble in general played with solid technical proficiency and an astonishing expressive range of both refinement and passion.
Clarinetist Kim next joined the string trio of Nartadjieva, Brookes, and Schwarz for Gershwin's Three Preludes. The composer first published these works in 1926 as short piano pieces and premiered them at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Originally conceived as a set of 24 preludes along the lines of Bach, these three have also been arranged for various instrumental combinations. Startlingly revolutionary when they were written, they have now become part of our American concert fare. The ensemble transformed itself into jazz mode with ease, with each of the three movements (Allegro ben ritmato e deciso, Andante con moto, and Agitato) beautifully characterized. Kim's playing was boldly extroverted without being strident. I marveled at the ensemble's flexibility of phrasing, tempi, intonations, and overall nuances which are so essential to Gershwin's style.
After intermission the concert was concluded with Dvořák's masterful String Quintet No. 2 from 1875. The work was written for a chamber music competition sponsored by the Prague Artistic Circle, and it won, lauded by the judges for its "distinction of theme, technical skill in polyphonic composition, mastery of form," and furthermore for its "knowledge of the instruments." For this we had essentially two first violinists (both were so strong), viola, cello, and double bass, the latter deepening the sonic range, but played very sensitively so as not to muddy the works. For the opening Allegro con fuoco, the gloves had, indeed, come off and all the players dug into their score, threatening to overpower the acoustics of their performance space. Their expressive range remained broadened to capture the many climactic surges and ebbs throughout this movement as well as the final Allegro assai. The second movement Scherzo: Allegro vivace was the most strongly characterized, with its folksy opening declamatory gestures and humorous trading of motives. The third movement Poco andante was memorable for the ensemble's ability to sustain interest in the simplest of melodic lines, while pacing the music to unfold in its own, good, languid time.
As if all this weren't enough, the group (oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and bass) performed as an encore Rossini's overture to L'italiana in Algeri at lightning speed, with impeccable bowings and wind articulations. Whew!
There were a few glitches during the concert. The camera movements did not always accurately track the exchange of musical ideas around the ensemble, I couldn't consistently hear the musicians during the Q&A due to their masks, and there was ambient traffic noise now and then from the street. Still, the thrill (shall I say frisson?) of hearing this fine ensemble playing from the heart of New York will long remain with me.
This performance repeats Saturday, October 24 and Sunday, October 25. See our sidebar for details.