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Delightful Medley of Young Ensembles

June 5, 2007

Ah, it's that time again. Spring is in the air, school's almost out, and summer music festivals beckon legions of young musicians. The Yehudi Menuhin Chamber Music Seminar and Festival, which the Alexander Quartet launched five years ago at San Francisco State University, is, when measured against the big weeks-long summer programs, a sort of summer-music-festival concentrate — that is, a welter of coachings, master classes, and performances crammed into a few days. This year the program's intensity and artistic excitement were none the worse for its small scale, as this listener can attest. Interspersed among the lectures and classes and coachings were concert programs admirably designed to feature the more polished of the young ensembles alongside the faculty. If that made for a couple of strangely heterogeneous (and long) evenings, it also encapsulated the experience of such an intensive workshop: a marvelous jumble of pieces and players and perspectives, all launched at you simultaneously. You take it all in as best you can. It may be disorienting but it is never dull.
Friday night's program in Knuth Hall offered just such a miscellany, though it bore traces of design, beginning and ending with two piano quartets. The Jupiter Trio and violist Toby Appel led off with Mozart's E-flat Quartet, K. 493, in a performance that was genial and stylish, if not entirely settled. Appel's thickish viola timbre seemed sometimes at odds with the Jupiter's lighter string sound, especially that of the violinist, Robert Waters.

Jupiter pianist Aglika Angelova reveled in the piano part, which is as rich and nearly as dominant as that of any of Mozart's late piano concertos, and her sense of comic timing was a delight in the finale. Her tone, though, took on a hard edge much of the time — one not echoed in the string playing, which generally avoided sharp articulation and dynamic extremes. All in all, the ensemble sounded as if it hadn't reached full accord.
Fleet and Light of Touch
Fauré's C-minor Quartet, Op. 15, at the other end of the program, received a much more unanimous performance that may have had something to do with the different logistical situations. After all, integrating a violist into a piano trio is more difficult than adding a pianist to three-fourths of a string quartet. In the Fauré, pianist Emile Naoumoff and three members of the Alexander Quartet were in complete rapport. Naoumoff's playing was fleet, gracious, and enthrallingly light of touch. The strings matched him with a silkier tone and an airier articulation than I remember hearing from them. The scherzo, a bit on the slow side but daringly light on its feet, was a treat.

In between the two piano quartets, two of the seminar's participating young string quartets performed. The Marrakesh Quartet, founded last year at the Cleveland Institute of Music's Intensive Quartet Seminar, set itself a difficult assignment by playing Haydn's D-Major Quartet, Op. 76, No. 5. The piece's core is an amazing Largo cantabile e mesto in the unworldly key of F-sharp major. To get to it, though, you have to figure out how to handle the first movement, which is a lot harder than it looks on the page. Most of it consists of a rather naive little tune played several times, with inconsequential variations of the first violin line on each pass.

Making those embellishments sound more spontaneous than mechanical is the only thing that makes the piece work at all, and the Marrakesh's Ellen Cockerham sounded out of her depth. With the appearance of the "famous Largo," matters improved enormously. The performance was grave, poised, well-tuned, and admirably sustained. The fast movements following had the dash and variety of articulation that the first movement lacked. Cellist Geoffrey Hirschberger's archly tossed-off trio to the Menuetto and second violinist Fiona Hughes' blistering rip through the finale's recapitulation were highlights. (Who says Haydn second violin parts are boring?)

The Afiara Quartet, a Canadian foursome who are assistants to the Alexander Quartet at S.F. State, contributed Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov's Pannonia Boundless (1998). The piece, written for the Kronos Quartet, is dark and meaty, suffused with Eastern European folk rhythms and melodic gestures. It proved a great vehicle for the Afiaras, who tackled it with startling intensity and self-confidence. They produce a powerful, keen-edged collective sound and, at least on this outing, aren't in the least afraid of pushing it to the edge of discomfort. That suited the work well.
Heady Creative Freedom
It was all to the good, too, in Shostakovich's Two Pieces for string octet, which preceded the Fauré on the second half and in which the Afiaras were joined by their colleagues and mentors, the Alexanders. The Shostakovich pieces, his Op. 11, date from 1924-1925 and are a product of those early days of the Russian Revolution in which the overthrow of the old order meant, briefly, a heady and anarchic freedom in all the creative arts. Which is, of course, why the thing sounds nothing like the familiar later Shostakovich — or, indeed, like much else.

The first-movement Prelude is alternately grand, eerie, and giddy, crowned at the recapitulation with a demented violin solo (magnificently ranted by the Alexanders' Zakarias Grafilo on Friday night). The Scherzo that follows is a menacing, gnashing, relentless juggernaut of dissonance. (The second movement of Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet is popularly supposed to depict an air raid; this Scherzo sounds more like the real thing.) The two quartets lit into it with a will and with obvious glee. It's not often that string players have license to produce such awesome mayhem in public.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.