In resonance with one of CMS’s currently ubiquitous street posters describing chamber music as “Small is the New Big”, the Society opened its 41st season with a program of works for intimate ensembles. An enthusiastic, full house thoroughly enjoyed three chamber music gems which resonated in the vibrant beauty and clarity of the recently-renovated Alice Tully Hall.
in David’s words…
Programming an Opening Night concert is an exciting challenge, filled with opportunity. We know that the audience will be eager, and that many devoted listeners may have survived a whole summer with little or no chamber music. Others will be relieved to get back to the state-of-the-art Alice Tully Hall, having endured summer concerts (however enjoyable) in parks, barns, sheds, tents and other places where everyone (not to mention the music) is at the mercy of the elements. And, in the most natural way, people will be looking forward to seeing each other, to sharing summer stories, and to hearing music together once again. It’s our responsibility to provide a concert that not only enhances the celebratory atmosphere, but also bears the CMS stamp of performance quality and programming integrity.
When we learned (after a considerable number of tries!) that violinist Gil Shaham could join us on this date, we knew we were well on our way to a successful evening. We were also fortunate that Gil’s wife Adele Anthony, a brilliant violinist now seemingly as busy as her husband, was also available, and from there unfolded quite naturally a program of beautiful music which showcased their abundant gifts.
We have heard both of these violinists play many times. As recently as last summer, at the Aspen Music Festival, we were there to hear Adele play a flawless Beethoven “Kreutzer” sonata, and were amazed, as was the rest of the crowd, to witness Gil in a stunning Tchaikovsky concerto on short notice, substituting for Janine Jansen, who had taken ill. Hearing how great both of them sounded only whetted our appetites for their appearances under our wing, and for our audience.
Hereby confessing to a bit of selfishness, Wu Han and I asked Gil to open the program with just the two of us in Haydn’s famous “Gypsy” trio. Rehearsing with Gil was a pure joy: he treated the performance of the trio with the same seriousness and care he must devote to the Brahms concerto. Haydn’s score, with hardly any interpretive indications, calls for playing of imagination and conviction, and Gil delivered at the highest level on both accounts. As one might expect of such an experienced soloist, it was incredibly easy to know what he was about to do, and that provided our little ensemble with a high possibility of spontaneity. Gil was open to any and all ideas, constantly writing things in his music which, I have the feeling, he may have used only as suggestions when it came to the concert. Nonetheless, he gave an inspired, tasteful and instrumentally superior performance that helped set the standard for the entire program, and for the coming season.
After a breath-taking run to the dressing room to leave my cello, I just made it into the hall to hear the next work on the program, Dohnanyi’s Serenade for violin, viola and cello. Joining Adele were violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt. Nicolas had just arrived over the weekend in a blaze of glory, fresh from his debut as the Credit Suisse award winner, in the Schumann Concerto at the Lucerne Festival, with no less an accompanist than the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Yet, this brilliant young cellist threw himself into our concert (like everything he has done at CMS) with equal passion and dedication, qualities which have endeared him to all of us. Paul Neubauer lent his unequaled poetic gifts to the beautiful viola solo which opens the second movement, and Adele fearlessly nailed everything in the death-defying scherzo. It was easily the finest performance of this difficult work I had ever heard, and the audience shared my enthusiasm.
After intermission (which included much friendly getting-together in Tully’s beautiful lobby and Hauser Pavilion upstairs), Adele, Paul and Nicolas returned to the stage, bringing with them cellist Sophie Shao, violist Richard O’Neill, Gil Shaham, and Brahms’s Sextet No. 2 in G major.
Easily one of Brahms’s most popular works, the sextet was composed in 1865, more or less on the happy (for him) occasion of Brahms’s decision to give up trying to have a wife and a family and that he would simply concern himself with being an artist. (This didn’t mean that he had lost interest in women, but that’s a story for another post!).
This is a work I have played many times, recently: two seasons ago with the Emerson in New York and London (also with Paul Neubauer); three seasons ago with a group from CMS on Live from Lincoln Center; and most recently, this past summer at Music@Menlo. So it was a special pleasure to sit back and enjoy this great piece while others did the work.
It’s hard to resist the opportunity to talk about this piece – so I won’t. The first movement has extraordinary features, among them: the most unusual accompaniment to the main theme, composed of an oscillating half step in the viola and isolated pizzicati in the second cello; a theme built with open fifths stacked consecutively, one a half-step above the former, descending in a simple arpeggio. The second fifth – on the out-of-the-key pitches Eb and Bb – lends a dark feeling to the otherwise tranquil melody, especially when the viola’s lower oscillating pitch (F#) can be heard enharmonically as Gb, completing an Eb minor triad with the Eb and Bb in the melody. Too technical for anyone? Sorry, but this is, in the words of Rob Kapilow, “What Makes It Great”.
The second movement is the most haunting, melancholy and serene scherzo imaginable. It feels like looking out the window at a rainy day, but being by a warm fire all the while. Little mordents, which are like short trills, adorn the gently dancing melody, giving it a kind of throbbing, emotional quality which it would not possess without them. A raucous middle section or trio interrupts, completely out of character with rest of the movement. But Brahms was not a composer to apologize for anything, and its appearance here is definitely completely in character with the composer’s Beethoven-esque side.
The slow movement is a set of variations that unfolds gradually. Once again, a simple main theme is accompanied by a complex figure – pairs of eighth notes against triplets in the second violin and viola. It’s in E minor, and it’s very stark and sad. The first variation gets even starker and sadder, until the second variation, in the guise of a little fugue, breaks in violently, leading to the next variation which is even more angular and wild. It’s as if Brahms started out sad, and gradually got angrier and angrier. However, at this point the anger breaks, and the music moves to a heavenly E major, with rocking sixteenth notes suggesting a more substantial melody that can only be imagined. A pedal point in E in the second cello anchors the coda, which contains some of the most beautiful music, I think, that Brahms ever wrote.
The finale is all fun, fast and light, with a beautiful, legato theme on the first violin’s rich, lowest string. It’s tricky to play well, but highly rewarding by the end, where Brahms manages to work in real fervor and a sense of triumph.
Richard O’Neill, Nicolas Altstaedt
It was especially nice to welcome back to our stage for this concert Sophie and Richard, two former CMS 2 artists who have hardly ever really left. Together with the Shaham family and Nicolas, they delivered an exciting performance that sent our listeners out in a good mood – as they had entered. Our work was done for the night.
It’s a good opportunity right here to express our gratitude to the artists, who put so much of themselves into making this opening concert the success it was. We look forward to working with all of them again.
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