August 8, 2014
Full disclosure. I'm an amateur — very amateur — violist, so Friday's Music in the Vineyards concert in Napa Valley was of particular interest to me. The program featured two sextets with prominent viola parts; a trio for viola, flute, and piano; and the pièce de résistance: a quartet for four violas. All of these were preceded by witty and informative introductions by the festival's Co-Artistic Director Michael Adams, who happens to be a violist.
Adams somehow managed to avoid any viola jokes in his introductions, but not so here. What is the sound of four violas playing in unison? A cluster chord.
Such might be the fate of four ordinary violists undertaking York Bowen's Fantasy Quartet for four violas, written in 1907. In the hands of Adams and three other violists, however, the results went far beyond perfect unison. The ensemble produced a rich and varied sound with an astonishing range, even though all four musicians were playing the same type of instrument.
Unlike violins, violas come in different lengths and widths, so they naturally sound different from each other. Add in four distinct musical personalities and you have an ensemble with the texture and variety of a Persian carpet. Everyone played well, but first violist Masumi Per Rostad was exceptional. His sound was velvety, and his motions were as graceful as a swan.
In the hands of Adams and three other violists the results went far beyond perfect unison. The ensemble produced a rich and varied sound with an astonishing range.
The only thing lacking was a composer befitting the ensemble. It's easy to understand how the once-prominent Bowen has faded into obscurity. His music, while competent, soon descends into a morass of romantic excess. It would be great for the movies, but it doesn't hold up in a concert hall, which is too bad for an ensemble as good as this one. Maybe the infinitesimal four-viola repertoire has something better to offer.
Before the viola quartet, Rostad joined flutist Adam Kuenzel and pianist Wei-Yi Yang for an engaging performance of Maurice Duruflé's Prelude, Recitative and Variations (1928), a resolutely Impressionist work written in Paris during the Jazz Age, when Impressionism was but a memory. Despite his backward-looking style, Duruflé was a masterful composer, nowhere more so than in this beguiling trio.
Rostad dominated the opening with his gorgeous sound and commanding stage presence. The others soon proved his equal, and the three interacted seamlessly to bring forth Duruflé's languid melodies and emotive variations. All three displayed a light touch and a genuine feeling for Duruflé's intricate score.
The trio was in strong contrast to the opener that preceded it: Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes (1919), a commissioned work that sounds almost nothing like Prokofiev. The story goes that a Russian ensemble comprised of string quartet, clarinet and piano asked Prokofiev to write a melodic piece based on Hebrew tunes and even gave him a book of such tunes for inspiration.
The result — which Prokofiev disdained — is a medley of Klezmer-sounding ditties with sophisticated instrumentation. The piece gets more boisterous as it goes along, which in this case resulted in some overly loud passages that taxed the sonic limits of the relatively small performance space at Silverado Vineyards. Cellist Tanya Tomkins pierced the din with an outstanding solo that featured an intense and tight vibrato.
This structure proved ideal for highlighting the first chairs ... Brandon Vamos embodied the sextet's musical drive with sweeping gestures and intense facial expressions. His tone was beautiful, and his rhythmic sense was unfailingly precise.
A much better sextet concluded the program, this one by Dvořák (1878). Written for two violins, two violas and two cellos, the sextet was published during Dvořák's meteoric rise to fame, and it features unbounded energy and confident writing throughout. At times, it sounds more like a string trio than a sextet. The first violinist, violist, and cellist get all the prominent lines, supported by their fellow instrumentalists. There are also occasional duets for each type of instrument.
This structure proved ideal for highlighting the first chairs: violinist Arnaud Sussman, violist Roberto Díaz, and especially cellist Brandon Vamos, who embodied the sextet's musical drive with sweeping gestures and intense facial expressions. His tone was beautiful, and his rhythmic sense was unfailingly precise.
The performance was magnificent. The dense texture of the opening movement can often sound muddy, but here each part was distinct and well coordinated, especially the lovely viola duet near the end. In the subsequent Dumka dance, the players displayed exceptional rhythmic flexibility, transporting listeners back to village dances in 19th-century Bohemia. So too with the ensuing Furiant, taken at top speed.
The players saved the best for last. The concluding movement proceeded from a stately opening in the violas and cellos to an increasingly complex set of variations that pulled deeper and deeper meanings out of the central theme. The last of these was an unbridled romp led by first violinist Sussman, who somehow marshaled everyone past the finish line in record time.