Ives Collective’s Concert Is Truly “All in the Family”

Janos Gereben on May 7, 2019
At the Palo Alto performance of the Bridge-Brahms program: Stefan Hersh, Roberta Freier, Stephen Harrison, Alex Hersh, Susan Freier, Paul Hersh | Credit: Pam Lampkin

Exemplifying the very essence of chamber music, an acclaimed family of musicians comprising the heart of the Ives Collective presented two brilliant sextets in Old First Church on Sunday.

The size and intimacy of chamber music were present in the medium-size venue, the unusually (and in this case unfortunately) small audience, and — above all — in the musicians’ passion in playing for themselves, as if were. It was a privilege to be in the audience, witnessing the family affair, being allowed to look (and listen) in on this intimate celebration.

“Family” is a literal description of the sextet: violist Paul Hersh (grandfather), violinist Stefan Hersh (son), cellist Alexander Hersh (grandson), with violinist Roberta Freier, violist Susan Freier and her husband, cellist Stephen Harrison — all related.

At Old First, Stephen Harrison speaks to the audience | Credit: Janos Gereben

Having presented the same program in Palo Alto’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Friday, they came to the San Francisco matinee to play Frank Bridge’s 1912 String Sextet and Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op.36.

Close connections also link the two composers: violist Bridge (1879 – 1941) was a member of the Joachim Quartet, led by Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831–1907), who had worked closely with Brahms, who died in 1897.

The Bridge Sextet opens with music that’s reminiscent of both Brahms and Bridge-contemporary Elgar — and yet it’s all his own. The musicians tore into the first movement with a broad, orchestral sound, powerful in the climactic passages.

Frank Bridge with his wife, Ethel, and American patroness, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (left)

The middle movement, which alternates between the customary slow tempo and somewhat unusual scherzo, found the sextet playing quietly, intimately (foreshadowing their passionate performance of the Brahms after the intermission), and then they poured new energy into the closing Allegro.

A curious aspect of the Brahms is that it frequently seems almost like a concerto. Stefan Hirsch’s first violin sang against the other instruments, which played together or as duos or trios. The movement ends in a climactic outpouring of passion.

The Scherzo is gripping with its outbursts alternating with quiet beauty, and this too has a huge finale — both movements ending with Beethovenesque exclamation marks.

The musicians, brilliant throughout the concert, reached their best in the Brahms’s closing Poco Allegro, playing with palpable — and even visible — dedication and passion. They both honored the composer and made the work their own.

Stephen Harrison and Susan Freier

The Ives Collective is planning a greatly varied, attractive season, opening on Oct. 11 and 13, with a program of Kodály, Korngold, and Peter Vasks; guest artists are violinist Hrabba Atladottir and pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi.

All-Beethoven concerts on Jan. 24–26, 2020: the String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 and Piano Concerto No. 4, arranged for chamber orchestra; with pianist Elizabeth Schumann, violinist Jay Zhong, and violists Melissa Matson and Jessica Chang.

The May 1–3, 2020, “Spring Collective” program of Tailleferre, Fauré, and César Franck will include guest artists Roy Mala (violin), Nancy Ellis (viola), and Robin Sutherland (piano).