In a concert Friday night at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, the [email protected] festival featured the world-class artists for which it is known, playing music both familiar and strange. Although a theme like this evening's, “Death and Transfiguration,” might at first glance appear to promise a wallow in melancholy (even lacking as the program did the obvious choice of Richard Strauss' famous meditation on the subject), the intelligent selection of pieces ensured variety and light amid the gloom.
After introductory remarks to the sold-out house by pianist and coartistic director Wu Han, the concert opened with Rachmaninov's early Trio élégiaque. Written while the composer was a teenaged student at the Moscow Conservatory, the trio can perhaps better be heard as a meditation on teen angst rather than on death.
With a minimum of material, Rachmaninov provided the opportunity for a maximum of expression. Pianist Han, violinist Philip Setzer, and cellist Colin Carr dove into the depths of this one-movement work. Carr's sensitive and achingly expressive cello playing was the highlight of the piece. Han demonstrated supreme command of her instrument, as did Setzer. The trio surged and soared, and was thoroughly impressive.
From Rachmaninov's trio, the evening moved on to a string quartet by Bruce Adolphe. Written in 1994, String Quartet No. 4, Whispers of Mortality, was performed by its original dedicatee, the Miami String Quartet. From the shock of the first movement to the canonic web of the last, the Quartet told a convincing story of a dying man coming to grips with his own mortality.
The Miami is an extremely fine ensemble — the performers brought the characters to life in the piece, even as they effortlessly moved from idea to idea with perfect understanding of each other. And Adolphe's repetition of material throughout the five movements of the quartet not only added to its sense of completion, but it also created a familiarity that makes the work enjoyable even for a listener not accustomed to contemporary music. Working with the ostinato principle so familiar in later 20th-century music, Adolphe managed to create a moving intimation of (im)mortality. The additive nature of his composition creates the impression of a slowly unfolding understanding of death that leads to gradual acceptance.
Channeling Bach and Schubert
Mortality was not unfamilar in J.S. Bach's day. His cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genug (I have enough), tells the story of a soul who has had enough with the world, and finds bliss in death and salvation. It was first performed shortly after the death of Bach's first child by his second wife.
Baritone Christòpheren Nomura negotiated the many highs and lows of this extremely difficult solo cantata with flair and earnestness. The first aria features a long-winded oboe part, played convincingly by William Bennett. Unfortunately, Bennett was at times hard to hear, perhaps due to the somewhat strange acoustics of the church. Even more unfortunate was the placement of the continuo bass and harpsichord at the back of the stage, with the bass directly behind Nomura. The position led to some errors of ensemble during the recitatives. More rehearsal time might have been helpful in this case.
I was pleased to see the Miami String Quartet return for the last work on the program, Franz Schubert's immortal Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden). Although I admit to being biased in favor of Schubert, this was the pinnacle of the night's already high level of performance. From the dramatic opening gesture, it was clear that these players not only know Schubert, but also that they know one another so well that the audience can easily understand their Schubert. The tempos were never rushed or lethargic, and had just the right touch of Romantic flexibility to make them completely satisfying.
Violinist Ivan Chan has one of the most elegant left hands I've ever seen. Coupled with the solidly expressive inner voices of violinist Cathy Meng Robinson and violist Yu Jin, and the noble cello of Keith Robinson, the Quartet performed so well that I forgot to notice how long Schubert's piece really is. It all went by as if in a dream.
Particularly hypnotic was the Miami's reading of the magical second movement theme and variations. It was about halfway through that I realized Schubert was the true heir of Haydn when it came to quartet writing. Each member of the quartet is given a chance to shine in this marvelous and endlessly varied movement.
[email protected] is a model festival in so many ways. From the impressive artist roster, to the friendly and helpful staff, to the many educational features (including a glossary of musical terms in the program booklet), the festival directors have done a splendid job of connecting audiences and the community to chamber music of all flavors. In just five years, this festival has created an extremely loyal following in a corner of the Bay Area often neglected by the classical music scene.
Rebekah Ahrendt holds the artist's diploma in viola da gamba and historical performance practice from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Currently, she is a graduate student in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.