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Hours before adjourning to a virtual Kol Nidre service at Temple Israel in Charlotte, it was interesting for me to virtually revisit St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson, where my wife Sue and I have spent many pleasurable Sunday afternoons in past years at chamber music concerts organized by Music @ St. Alban's artistic director Barbara Krumdieck. Like our 5781 High Holy Days gatherings, Krumdieck was quick to point out that her 2020-21 season at St. Alban's would be unprecedented. Rather than dwell on the deficiencies of the virtual concerts for musicians and audiences, she emphasized the advantages for us: we could attend in our pajamas, and we could bring sandwiches and chomp on crunchy snacks without a qualm. If this were a ZOOM presentation, I could have chimed in with a couple more, for we did not mourn having to dispense with the 50-minute car rides back and forth from our home. Nor did we have to fret over having the time and energy to schedule trips to Davidson and Shalom Park on the same day. Everything could be done from the comfort of my office desk.
The first guest artists for 2020-21 hardly felt like guests at all, since we see all three of them frequently enough in the Charlotte Symphony violin section. Another facet of the onscreen déjà-vu to be noted in the performance of Chamber Music 4 All was the cruel fact that this was the group that had been slated to perform back in March when the onset of COVID-19 forced postponement. Founders Monica Boboc and Calin Ovidiu Lupanu are a married couple, while Joseph Meyer, doubling on violin and viola, is Lupanu's longtime music stand partner, since he is associate concertmaster at both the Charlotte Symphony and the Colorado Music Festival, another Lupanu-Boboc hangout. Whether by fortuitous happenstance or by cunning calculation, the program offered us opportunities to watch all three of these musicians performing masked and unmasked.
Lupanu was obliged to don a mask as the concert began with Johan Halvorsen's Passacaglia for Violin and Viola, adapted from Handel's Harpsichord Suite in G minor, where Meyer started off with his viola. Meyer was able to shed his mask for his only crack at playing violin in Bach's Präludium from Partita No. 3 in E for solo violin. For the climactic piece of the afternoon and Boboc's first appearance, Dvořák's Terzetto for two violins and viola, all three socially-distanced players wore masks. Only in the concluding "Por Una Cabeza," the famed Carlos Gardel tango arranged for two violins by Augustin Hadelich, were Lupanu and Boboc able to play together in homestyle conditions.
Presented on site at the Davidson chapel, the sound of the music-making and the spoken intros by Krumdieck and Lupanu was consistently warm and focused. Video by Ben Allison and Matt Presson deployed multiple cameras resourcefully, offering both group shots and closeups of all three musicians. The only failure in imagination from Benco Video Production was the absence of an establishing wide shot. After Krumdieck's intro, we did pull back enough to see that we weren't in a musty study, but we never saw the full height, spaciousness, and airy illumination of the glorious chapel. That part of the live concert experience didn't need to go missing.
Otherwise, video production was as impeccable as Chamber Music 4 All's performances. Both of the parts in the Passacaglia demanded virtuosity, Meyer contributing contrapuntally on viola rather than as a mere accompanist, while Lupanu executed some nifty ricochet bowing higher in the treble. Belying its harpsichord origins, the Halvorsen adaptation not only changed tempos beguilingly, moving from fast to slow and thence to slow and softer, it also packaged a charming interchange of pizzicatos from the players that barreled into a dazzling presto-paced episode held wisely in reserve. The shifts in tempo kept coming, each slowdown giving way to pyrotechnics we hadn't seen before. Lupanu's second round of ricochets saw him responding to himself, and the final acceleration to a galloping piece crested with a breathtaking crescendo.
Beautifully played by Meyer, the Präludium found different means, also quite cunning, to increase in intensity as it proceeded. At times in the opening, Meyer hardly seemed to change his left-hand fingering at all as his right hand churned away with the bow. Later in the piece, a deluge of demands assailed the violinist as the pace quickened and his left hand sprang into action, but Meyer navigated them all without the slightest perturbation, his tone as rich and silvery at the end as it was at the beginning.
Written six years before his momentous "New World" Symphony of 1893, Dvořák's Terzetto may have reminded Lupanu and his Music 4 All cohorts of the famous Largo movement of the "New World." Some of that mysterious, primeval calm prevailed at the outset as the trio launched into the first two movements, aptly marked as Introduzione: Allegro ma non Troppo Larghetto, since the players transitioned to the Larghetto without a pause. The Allegro didn't break out of the calm immediately – or last very long before the composer reverted to his affecting opening theme. But the reprise of the spellbinding opening didn't last as long the second time around, the agitated Allegro coming on sooner and lingering for more extensive development and drama. The Larghetto that followed was not at all anticlimactic, more somber than the opening with more wistful harmony, and the trio sharply contrasted the solemnity that framed this movement with the louder, quicker midsection of the movement. Here the musicians achieved stateliness and dignity before the music relapsed into its lachrymose Larghetto before fading out.
Lupanu and Boboc found a wonderful way to unmask and bring joy to the end of their long-postponed concert. In his opening remarks, Lupanu alluded to Al Pacino and Scent of a Woman as a familiar place to encounter the strains of "Por Una Cabeza." However, in her precocious set of program notes, high school junior Earle Cheshire-Wood added Schindler's List, Scent of a Woman, True Lies, and Bad Santa to the catalog and tracked down the composer himself, singing lyrics by Alfredo La Pera, as the first to perform this tango on celluloid in 1935, the same year these partners perished in a plane crash. With Lupanu taking the lead and Boboc accompanying vivaciously, the duo brought out the flaming passion of this music – and its stirring impulse to live life to the fullest. Both the song and the St. Alban's setting brought me uplift amid my contemplations of the year ahead and our paths forward.