August 17, 2012

Fine Pairings at Music in the Vineyard

Music in the Vineyards
By Steven Winn

Felix Mendelssohn may well have been “a nice guy,” as Michael Adams, Co-Artistic Director of Music in the Vineyards, said in his chatty remarks during Friday’s Napa Valley Chamber Music Festival concert at the Silverado Vineyards in St. Helena. Yet the composer must have been one dauntingly intimidating teen.

With the grave opening measures of his Sonata for Viola and Piano, composed at age 15, Mendelssohn served notice that being a prodigy was serious business. And so it remained through the course of this ambitious 25-minute work, crowned by a set of variations that range from thorny comedy to feathery lyricism to swaggering heroics.

Mendelssohn, of course, was just warming up. Well before turning 18, he composed two enduring masterworks: the great String Octet in E-flat Major and the scintillating overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Never mind what a swell fellow he became. That kind of early genius is enough to make any ordinary mortal throw a wine glass across the room — after offering a toast of gratitude first.

 

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The early Sonata, performed by Pacifica Quartet violist Masumi Per Rostad and pianist Jeffrey Sykes, led off the youth-oriented first half of the Silverado program. Judd Greenstein’s propulsive Four on the Floor, a precocious first-time work for string quartet that debuted in 2006, when the Brooklyn composer was 27, followed the Mendelssohn.

 

The evening got off to a striking if somewhat unsteady start. Rostad’s sparing use of vibrato underscored the weighty quality of the opening Adagio: Allegro. Sykes gave the borderline busy piano-passagework a seriousness of purpose. But the two players weren’t always responsive to each other’s moves, and Rostad’s intonation proved imperfect.

Things brightened after a break between movements, when Sykes made a little joke about the springy raised platform he and the violist shared. “Sonata for Viola, Piano, and Creaky Floor,” he mused. Then it was on to the spry but semiturbulent Menuetto, with its stately Trio section and a slyly engineered return to the A material.

The performance of Mendelssohn’s late Quintet for Strings in B-flat Major was obscured by pedal-to-the-metal overkill.

Mendelssohn gives the piano a lot of heavy lifting in the Andante con variazioni, and Sykes, well-partnered by Masumi, rose to the challenge. The piano rippled prettily under sustained, long string notes. The players strode confidently together into a richly syncopated patch. Even in a prolix, Songs Without Words–like section near the end, Rostad and Sykes held onto the musical thread. An operatic exchange and a showy finish polished things off handsomely.

Hold on to Your Seat

Greenstein’s 12-minute Four on the Floor was a zero-to-60 thrill ride. Violinists Erin Keefe and Daria Adams, violist Jonathan Vinocur, and cellist Michelle Djokic sent the thing motoring off and held on tight through every dip and turn and dynamic shiver. By locking every detail tightly in place, with their steely command of phrasing and pulse, the performers gave off the freewheeling air of inspired improvisers, happily sharing and trading riffs.

Built out of a tiny rhythmic cell, this exciting nonstop work creates a full-blown weather system out of its Bolero-esque repetitions, wind-blown accents, double-stop squalls, tonal migrations, eerie calms, and sun shafts of harmonic convergence. More storm than stormy, it moves by its own inexorable, infectious logic. To a one the players sounded — and looked, beaming even as they focused in on all the piece’s interlocking parts — delighted to be on board.

Intermission is no small part of Music in the Vineyards, which ended its 18th season with this and two other chamber concerts over the weekend. Stepping out onto a terrace as the last of a purple sunset faded to black over the valley, concertgoers sampled a sunny Silverado Chardonnay and an even better, suave Merlot. (It can’t be helped: This festival turns music critics into instant wine writers.)

The wine, as it happened, was the last best thing of the night. For all its crowd-pleasing drive, the second-half performance of Mendelssohn’s late Quintet for Strings in B-flat Major, Op. 87, was obscured by pedal-to-the-metal overkill. What sounded vibrant and urgent early on, in the opening Allegro vivace, soon devolved into relentlessness. The Scherzo never fully recovered from a heavy opening tread. Only toward the end of the Adagio did the texture and atmosphere expand, when both violists Vinocur and Rostad and cellist Robert DeMaine broke through gracefully in spots.

Violinist Ara Gregorian set the overbearing agenda, with his second, Sibbi Bernhardsson, following his lead. Some audibly heavy breathing from that side of the stage didn’t help matters. The final Allegro was fast and exciting and loud. That might have made a real impact if it hadn’t been so much like what had come before.

The memory that lingered was that juddering, churning, well-oiled engine of Greenstein’s Four on the Floor.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.