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The Race (and the Dinner) Goes to the Swift

July 10, 2007

Chamber music gluttons can always find satiation at the American Bach Soloists' SummerFest concerts. Each installment is a veritable orgy of music, food, and camaraderie, lasting a pleasantly staggering four hours.
Sunday night was the final event of this year's summer series, featuring the Zivian-Tomkins Duo, performing several Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano; the Bay Area's newest a cappella vocal ensemble, Clerestory; and members of ABS playing some chamber works for strings (Brahms' Quintet Op. 111, No. 2; Schubert's String Trio in B-flat, D. 581; and Mendelssohn's famous String Octet, Op. 20).

Tanya Tomkins and Eric Zivian have performed together long, and often enough, to predict each other's every move, and I've heard them so often that I thought that I could do the same. On Sunday, I got some of what I've come to expect from the duo: brilliant, technically flawless performances; deft ensemble playing; and tempos approaching race-car speeds that both players toss off with ease.

But something seemed a little different this time. Zivian's interpretive skills often appear to straddle a line — perhaps eccentricity bordering on genius, or genius bordering on eccentricity. His performance on Sunday leaned toward the latter. His phrasing was unique and insightful. He balanced startling elisions against well-placed, clear articulations. Long periods of placid lyricism were given brilliance (and some shock value) by sforzandos that punctuated the texture at unexpected places.

In the scherzo of the Op. 69 sonata, Zivian pushed his fortepiano (built about 20 years ago in Berkeley by Paul Poletti and Janine Johnson) to its dynamic limits, while managing not to elicit a single ugly sound — much, in fact, like descriptions of Beethoven's own playing in his youth. The longer that Zivian sits at that historic piano, the better he controls both its strengths (clarity, balance throughout its range) and its weaknesses (delicacy of tone, the capacity to produce an ugly sound if overplayed).

Tomkins mostly played "straight man" to her partner's Beethovenian wildness, but unquestionably had moments of technical glory. The final Allegro vivace of the Op. 69 sonata was particularly fleet, perhaps the swiftest that I've ever heard it. "Who can play these scalar runs the fastest?" the players seemed to be communicating clairvoyantly to one another, as they treated each tumbling phrase, one after another, to ever-so-slight accelerandos. Overall, their performance was one of the finest blends of athletic agility and musical sensitivity that a listener could hope for, and a joy to hear.
If Food Be the Music of Love, Eat On
The evening's dinner offered yet more delights, as Clerestory, a newish group of nine singers (see review) performed a set of mostly love songs. Their ensemble work, both light and clear, shone in Byrd's Now Is the Gentle Season and Morley's This Sweet and Merry Month through contrapuntally dense passages that could have turned muddy but instead sounded out with crystalline brilliance.

As with all young groups, a few bobbles were heard; for example, the sole Italian work in the set, Monteverdi's Eccomi Pronta ai Baci, suffered from poor pronunciation and diction and particularly displeasing diphthongs. The vowel-shifting effect was so jarring that a number of the composer's through-the-looking-glass cadential moments were obscured, robbing listeners of the music's greatest charm. Also teeth-gratingly irritating was the ensemble's selection of an arrangement by Philip Wilby of an English folksong called Marianne. The tune was charming, but the harmonization was cheesy enough to have belonged on a Beach Boys record, and proved a poor fit with the rest of the selections.

Clerestory's performance promises great things for the group. It is of mixed ages and produces a unique, beautiful timbre. The singers work hard for a cohesive sound, which never suppresses the individuals' distinctive vocal characteristics. Chris Fritzsche's soaring soprano, for one, was enchanting. The group's young director, Jesse Antin, has big plans for his group, and I hope that the Bay Area will be generous in its response to future seasons.

ABS' final set included Brahms' second quintet, a beast of a piece, so it may not be fair to criticize the intonation in the first movement. However, the ensemble's overall sound production was strained and unpleasant. Perhaps they had something in mind from renowned modern-instrument recordings that just didn't come across on their period instruments. What we heard was struggle, not heroic effort. Bright spots included Anthony Martin's and David Daniel Bowes' lovely viola playing in the Adagio. Here, as well as in the folksy "laendler" sections of the final movement, the group seemed to hit its stride.

Schubert's B-flat trio also met with a lackluster performance, which was surprising, since it came from some of ABS' most seasoned players. The minuet was smooth and lyrical, with almost all the rhythmic life stamped out of it. Thankfully, the final movement was more buoyant. Lisa Weiss' technical prowess shone in the filigree of the closing Allegretto, and in the Rondo the group's sensitivity to schizophrenic shifts between mock seriousness and downright silliness provoked appreciative laughter from the audience.
Miniature Symphony for Eight Instruments
The final piece on the program made it all worthwhile. Anthony Martin wrote a recent editorial for Early Music America, in which he questioned whether the philosophical standpoints of so-called historically informed performers are really all that different from the current breed of "mainstream" classical performers. While I agree with him in sentiment, Sunday evening's performance of Mendelssohn's octet pointed out exactly where the difference still lies: in sound!

This performance was the best I've heard of that notable work. The merits of the playing may have stemmed largely from these early-music players' habituation to clarity and transparency over sonic lushness. Yet they still emitted a giant "whoosh" of sound that we've come to expect from the opening of the work's first movement, which made me sit bolt upright.

The presentation's real strength, though, lay in the piece's inner workings. While most ensembles bog down in the tremendously difficult final Presto, these eight players managed the contrapuntal density with ease. Mendelssohn, only 16 at the time of the octet's composition, created something different: instead of a work for two quartets, he wrote a true eight-part texture, a kind of miniature symphony. This was the first performance I've ever heard that made evident this remarkable achievement. Like Clerestory before them, the ABS ensemble balanced individual, linear integrity against a carefully controlled aural whole.

ABS' moving performance of the octet proved the validity of playing 19th-century music on instruments from the period. I hope that ABS will record this outstanding interpretation.

Jonathan Rhodes Lee studied harpsichord in New York, San Francisco, and the Netherlands. He is the author of Film Music in the Sound Era  and he currently serves as Assistant Professsor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.