June 5, 2007
From a listener's perspective, one of the joys of pedagogically oriented programs like the Yehudi Menuhin Chamber Music Seminar and Festival is the opportunity it affords to hear both the faculty and the seminar participants in two roles — the former teaching as well as playing, the latter learning as well as performing. It is fascinating to see an ensemble rehearing and adjusting a performance at a teacher's instigation, and fascinating to see how that teacher applies his own advice in his own playing. And in a festival setting, where performances are being assembled and reassembled on the fly, with little or no rehearsal, the listener can gain a sense of a musician's or ensemble's capabilities that a polished rendition doesn't necessarily provide.
Cellist Lynn Harrell's gentle and assiduous coaching, for example, cast a new light on the ensembles in Saturday afternoon's master class. The Marrakesh Quartet had brought the slow movement of Dvořák's "American" Quartet, in an attractive but somewhat pale and vague performance that was transformed once Harrell got his hands on it. At his suggestion the players intensified their sound, varied their phrasing, paced everything with greater care and greater purposiveness. The impression was of removing a scrim from in front of a fine ensemble that hadn't quite realized how good it could be.
By contrast, the Afiara Quartet's Mendelssohn D-Major Quartet first movement emerged from contact with Harrell basically itself, only a little more so, Harrell having drawn the players' attention to small technical infelicities and untidinesses. (The performance, even pre-Harrell, was a vibrant bundle of energy. This is an ensemble with almost more verve than it knows what to do with.)
Inspired Master Teaching
In the previous day's cello master class, Harrell spent most of his time dealing with technical concerns. Everything centered on sound — what you ought to want, and how you ought to go about producing it. He has a gift for explaining the mechanics of tone production simply and lucidly. It was the sort of teaching that made this string player want to run home and fool around with her bowhold.
I caught two briefer master classes earlier on Saturday, led by violist Toby Appel and by the members of the Alexander Quartet, and there too the coaching was shrewd, cannily packing in as many take-home lessons as possible.
Saturday night's concert was, like Friday's, a glorious mishmash. The Jupiter Trio led off the evening with Beethoven's Op. 11 Clarinet Trio in its violin version. It was a nimble and stylish performance, full of humor and much more colorful than the previous day's Mozart piano quartet had been. Violinist Robert Waters and cellist Julian Hersh used their full tonal resources, breaking out a strikingly rich tone in the slow movement, paring down to a ghostly whisper in the finale's bare second variation, and covering nearly all the territory in between. They took a positive joy, too, in snappy articulation, especially in the finale's livelier variations, where pianist Aglika Angelova was also at her most impish.
Angelova reappeared with Emile Naoumoff for a blissfully graceful account of Fauré's Dolly Suite, following it with an agitated little four-hand waltz of Naoumoff's own composition dedicated to his onetime mentor, Nadia Boulanger. More substantial were three mélodies for voice and piano commissioned by the Menuhin Seminar from Naoumoff and premiered Saturday night by the composer himself and mezzo-soprano Megan Stetson.
Naoumoff's vocal writing is seductive and his harmonies are dense and rich in a dusky sort of way that seemed uncannily apt to the texts of Verlaine and Louÿs that he set. Stetson's attractively French-sounding voice, with its narrow and fast vibrato, suited them well.
The first half ended, oddly, with a sizable chunk of Bartók's First Quartet, presented by the Habit Quartet from Utah State University. The ensemble had appeared in Appel's master class earlier in the day bearing a sketchily prepared finale of Mozart's D-Minor Quartet, K. 421, so I wasn't sure what to expect of the Bartók. In the event, it was a performance of great concentration and high excitement, one that found the young quartet clearly playing up to its technical limits and then surpassing them. It was a thrill to hear, though it would have been an even bigger one if they'd dared to perform the entire work.
Rounding the evening off in grand festival style was that mainstay of chamber-music reading parties, Brahms' B-flat Sextet, which brims over with tunes and rich textures and general high-spiritedness. The performance was appropriately, well, festive — splendidly uncalculated, and as profligate with interpretive gestures as the composer was with the tunes.
While it seemed to be driven a lot from the bottom, that was probably inevitable, given the playing of Harrell as first cello and Appel as first viola. Harrell played as though intent on demonstrating every coloristic device he'd shared in his master classes. The result was near self-parody, though marvelous to watch. Appel, meanwhile, indulged himself violistically in a way most violists wouldn't dare to do in public. I doubt I was the only listener torn between reflexively disapproving of some of the more audacious portamenti and secretly wanting to egg him on.
Alongside such flamboyance, the Alexander Quartet (which made up the balance of the players) seemed positively decorous. Somehow it all added up to a honey of a performance, alive with imagination and avid for enjoyment, if a bit untidy around the edges. As an end to a long day's lessons in chamber music, it would have been difficult to beat.