We had a world record five classical Maverick Concerts since my last column a mere two weeks ago. The first, August 20, was the annual Chamber Orchestra Concert with Maverick’s music director Alexander Platt leading the “Maverick Chamber Players,” mostly members of Boston’s Aurora Ensemble. The program opened with piano soloist Adam Tendler, who made a great impression last summer, in Bach’s Concerto No. 4 in A. His approach was crisp and clear although his embellishments to the text were sparse. Platt’s ten string players could easily have been overbalanced by the piano but they never were. The strings alone then played Aaron Copland’s rarely-heard late masterpiece, Nonet for Strings. It’s one long movement evolving through several moods, mostly somber but evolving into dancelike rhythms in Copland’s “Americana” style. The playing was strong and committed. Cellist Emmanuel Feldman took the stage to celebrate the 100th birthday anniversary of Alberto Ginastera with his “Punena No. 2” for solo cello, a highly imaginative piece which builds on the techniques of Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello. Feldman played this piece for Maverick three years ago; if memory serves he played it even better this time.
Tendler took the stage after intermission for a major Copland work I’ve never heard played live before, the “Piano Fantasy” of 1957. This long meditative piece seems to take off from Copland’s “Piano Variations” of three decades earlier and recycles its ideas, adding new ones along the way for half an hour. Or, in Tendler’s hands, 34 minutes, which might explain why the music seemed to drag occasionally, although it was overall a mesmerizing experience for me. The concert concluded with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with a surprisingly huge sound from the small string ensemble and Tendler playing continuo on the piano. I don’t know if I’d ever want to hear this music played at such fast speeds again but it was exhilarating while it lasted.
On August 21, the renowned Borromeo String Quartet demonstrated why it’s so well known with strong-toned, powerful performances of Haydn’s Quartet in E Flat, Op. 76, No. 6, and Beethoven’s Quartet in E Flat, Op. 127. Throughout both, the group was meticulous about accuracy, ensemble, and dynamics, including some extreme but appropriate contrasts in the Beethoven. Despite the great quality of these heavy-hitters, though, the main excitement of the program came from the world premiere of Russell Platt’s “Mountain Interval,” the last of Maverick’s centennial commissions. We in Woodstock may think of Russell as Alexander’s brother, or as the music editor of The New Yorker. He’s also an accomplished composer with a number of recordings and high-level credits. (He was also, while a student at the Curtis Institute, a classmate of two members of the Borromeo Quartet.) Platt drew inspiration for his work from the poems of Robert Frost, who provided the title for the piece and most of the seven movements; and from Beethoven, whose seven-movement design for his Op. 131 Quartet Platt imitated here. But the music isn’t overtly programmatic, and the relationship to Beethoven isn’t directly audible. This work, mostly in a lyrical atonal style which verges into flat-out tonality, is most notable for its strongly emotional quality. While the Presto sixth movement generated a lot of excitement, I came away most with how accurate the composer’s description of the last movement is: “inconsolable.” As you’d expect, the performance, involving friends of the composer’s, was very powerful and convincing. You can hear it for yourself at the Borromeo website, livingarchive.org.
Two more string quartets played the following weekend. I guessed right that the St. Lawrence String Quartet was scheduled for Friday, August 26; it was a free night the ensemble had before a Saturday night concert nearby. But I guessed wrong that the unusual date would limit the audience, which turned out in very good numbers. The St. Lawrence’s Haydn — a specialty of theirs, as it should be for all string quartets — was interestingly different from the Borromeo’s. In the Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No. 3, the St. Lawrence sound was noticeably leaner than the huge round tone of the Borromeo, but still quite beautiful in quality. This performance did a wonderful job of emphasizing the eccentric, unpredictable elements that make Haydn’s music so continually fascinating, with very strong viola playing and superb ensemble. I’m a fan of the music of John Adams, whose “Nixon in China” is one of the 20th century’s great operas. So it gives me no pleasure to report that I found his String Quartet No. 2 surprisingly unsuccessful. Adams based his piece on fragments from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 110. This created two problems for me. One is that I kept recognizing, and being distracted by, the Beethoven fragments; the other is that what Adams did with these fragments wasn’t nearly as interesting as what Beethoven did with them. The two long movements didn’t seem cohesive, either, although near the end of the second the music started getting exciting. Too little, too late. The piece was written for these musicians and they played the hell out of it. They also did very well with the concluding work, Schumann’s String Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3, which was on their debut CD almost 20 years ago. Two of the members are new since then but they all played as though they had been living with the music for a long time.
Sunday, August 28, we had yet more Haydn from the Enso String Quartet: one of the last two, Op. 77, No. 1. This group had a crisp, clean sound, also very beautiful in tonal quality, and again with lots of strong viola sound (which I mention because weak viola sound is often a problem with string quartets). I loved the way these players dug in for the rhythms of the Menuetto. I’ve heard the finale played faster than this but not necessarily better. Henri Dutilleux was born 100 years ago, but he died only three years ago. He’s not as well known in the U.S. as he should be; he was a major master. His “Ainsi la nuit” (“Thus the night”) is a series of seven movements, mostly continuous, with some brief connections the composer calls “parentheses.” Dutilleux uses many “extended” techniques including Ligeti-like tone clusters. I don’t hear strong continuity in this work (although it may well be there) but to me it’s a glorious series of related miniatures, almost like a museum gallery. The ensemble met its challenges with gusto and was rewarded with an ovation from the audience. Joaquin Turina’s “Serenata” proved a brief, amusing trifle, a calm interlude before the exciting storm of Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 1, another centenary celebration for a 1916 composer. At this period of Ginastera’s career (1948) he was writing vividly folklike, highly accessible music, which the audience predictably loved. As did I.
Between these events, on Saturday, August 27, was what I must regretfully describe as the most unsatisfactory Maverick Concert I can recall. The programming was certainly interesting enough: two Ravel violin masterpieces surrounding a collection of recent arrangements of music from Eastern Europe and the orient. And both violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz played very well. The problem was that Herskowitz played as if he thought he was the only musician on the stage, sometimes drowning out St. John so completely that I had to look at her to make sure she was still playing. (She was.) St. John is a wonderful and original musician, but she needs a new musical partner desperately.
On Thursday, August 18, I traveled down to Ellenville’s St. John’s Memorial Episcopal Church out of great curiosity. I’d never heard of a concert series in Ellenville before, which turns out to be my ignorance. This venue has hosted four concerts a year for the past eight years. The performers, calling themselves the Ellenville Chamber Ensemble, played a serious string quartet program, which I heard about only because a friend of the composer Frederic Sharaf wrote to me about it. Sharaf’s new String Quartet No. 4, which opened the concert, received its world premiere on this occasion. Sharaf, in his early eighties, has an impressive resume of teachers and previous performances and an impressive publisher (Carl Fisher). I wondered why I’d never heard of him before, and now I know. Sharaf writes very well for strings, and his music is of fine quality, but if you were told it had been written 100 years ago you would believe it. His melodic and harmonic style is very far out of date, not a crippling problem in itself but not what most musicians want to play. Parts of this piece sounded like Borodin, who died well over a century ago (1887, actually), and parts like Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” (composed 1899). The program was odd — a premiere, half a Haydn Quartet, and a complete Shostakovich Quartet — but it was diverse and demanding enough to hear that, improbably, these musicians have formed a coherent and expert ensemble. The Shostakovich Sixth Quartet was their greatest challenge and they played it like a world-class ensemble. These concerts are free and they do draw an audience. I’ll try to arrange for notice of further events in case anyone else wants the excuse I welcome to eat at Aroma Thyme.
This weekend and beyond
Very much music is coming up in the near future. Maverick has two more full weekends of concerts. On September 3, at 6 p.m., pianists Andrew Russo and Frederic Chiu each play solos and then combine for Stravinsky’s four-hand version of his complete ballet “Petrouchka.” This duo’s version of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was one of the standouts of last summer. Sunday is the Friends of the Maverick concert, where a $50 contribution gets you an hour of music played by pianist Pedja Muzijevic (Haydn, Crumb, and Schubert) and a buffet.
Saturday, September 10, at 8 p.m., Happy Traum and Friends promises some impressive friends along with the impressive guitar & vocals of Happy. Sunday, the 11th, at 4 p.m., is the official end of the season, as the Pacifica String Quartet plays Mozart, Beethoven, and Shulamit Ran. However, on Saturday, September 18, at 8 p.m., the Julian Lage Trio makes up the concert which was prevented by a power outage on August 13. Saugerties Pro Musica, SUNY New Paltz, and of course Bard begin seasons in September but I’ll have more details in my final summer column in two weeks.