The Maverick Concerts season got off to a rousing start last weekend. Too rousing for me. Saturday night, June 24, was my first chance to hear the contemporary music string quartet called ETHEL. They play. They dance. They sing. They stomp. Along the way, at least for my taste, they don’t make a hell of a lot of music. Most of the short pieces were more flash than substance. I make an exception for violist Ralph Farris’s imaginative tribute to Janis Joplin, “Sweet Janis,” which was at least clever. Of the three comparatively longer pieces on the program, I found Misty Mazzoli’s “Quartet for Queen Mab” a lot of aimless wandering, Julia Wolfe’s “Blue Dress for String Quartet” droning, grating, repetitious, and downright ugly. Only Mary Ellen Child’s “Point and Line,” making interesting contrast between bowed and plucked notes, had enough musical vitamins to keep me interested. Otherwise this program struck me as a dinner made up of candy and unappetizing main courses. There was also a lot of self-congratulatory talk between numbers. In fairness I have to report that the audience responded to the program with cheers and whistles. I don’t often feel like an old fogey but I did on that night.
I had a much better time the following afternoon, as the Miró Quartet treated us to an all-Dvorák program, without the great but over-familiar “American” Quartet. “Cypresses” is a set of twelve songs arranged by the composer for string quartet. Five of them were just about right, and the lovely playing was enhanced by readings of the original texts. The Quartet in D Minor, Op. 34, is Dvorák’s ninth string quartet but the earliest one generally performed. (There are beauties hidden in some of the earlier ones.) Here I greatly enjoyed the ensemble’s beautiful sound and mellow but dramatic approach, especially the tender, melting Adagio. This felt like music the ensemble has truly lived with. I was less happy with the playing of the Quartet in A Flat, Op. 105, which often seemed too aggressive for Dvorák, except for the very emotional slow movement. The aggression was enough to keep the performance from perfection for me, but certainly not enough to damage the music, which still sounded glorious. I loved the quartet’s encore, too, the pizzicato movement from Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, played to perfection.
The next two weekends at Maverick feature six events. The Arturo O’Farrill Quintet brings its prize-winning Afro-Cuban jazz style on Saturday, July 1 for a Young People’s Concert at 11 a.m. (free for children, five bucks for adults) and a regular concert at 8 p.m. Sunday, the Escher String Quartet returns at 4 p.m. with Schubert, Bartók, and Sibelius. The Bartók, his Third Quartet, is part of this ensemble’s aim to bring all six quartets to Maverick, one per year.
On Friday, July 7, at 8, a new series begins at Maverick, “Maverick Prodigies,” featuring young local musicians. This year’s Prodigies are The Ladles, whose music is described as “old time, neo-soul, and chorale.” The Spektral Quartet makes its debut on Saturday, the 8th, at 8 p.m., with music by Augusta Read Thomas, Gerard McBurney (a world premiere), Glass and Ravel. McBurney will appear at Maverick to introduce his own work. He is Creative Director of the Chicago Symphony’s Beyond the Score series. McBurney comes from England, where he studied at Cambridge, presented programs for BBC Radio 3 for 20 years, and made more than two dozen documentary films. He is also Creative Director of the famous Ojai Music Festival. His quartet is based on music of the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. On Sunday, the 9th at 4 p.m., another Maverick debut, by the Chiara Quartet, with music of Britten, Kernis, and Brahms. This launches a three-week series which couples the three string quartets of American Aaron Jay Kernis with the three quartets of Brahms. There’s lots of information at www.maverickconcerts.org.
As a now-traditional pre-season treat, Ars Choralis came to Maverick for two performances of an ambitious program on June 17 and 18; I caught the second show. The main work was Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass, renamed by Haydn in honor of an appearance by Napoleon’s conqueror. It was originally “Mass for Troubled Times,” which made it a particularly appropriate selection. I was concerned about how Ars Choralis’s little orchestra could carry the weight of this large and dramatic piece, with trumpets and drums, but I needn’t have worried. In the relatively modest-sized Maverick hall, the small string group had more than adequate presence, and the trumpets and drums were powerful. No worries about the chorus; Ars Choralis seems to be up to almost anything, and the ensemble sang with convincing power when needed — also plenty of tenderness and nuance. Music Director Barbara Pickhardt pulled this one off successfully, and I admire her for taking on the challenge. Of the soloists, alto Maria Bedo had the largest part and was glorious. The others — soprano Lily Arbisser, tenor Harvey R. Boyer, and bass Charles Martin — all were appropriately dignified and expressive. Four of Copland’s “Old American Songs,” rearranged for chorus by Irving Fine and R Wilding-White, made a very pleasant opening for the concert. A last-minute substitute interlude, two movements of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, had a fine soloist in Erica Pickhardt but the little orchestra sounded scrappy. Not a big deal. To learn about Ars Choralis’s upcoming season check out www.arschoralis.org.
For great orchestral playing, I went to Bard’s Sosnoff Theater on Sunday, May 28, for a special appearance by The Orchestra Now under conductor Fabio Luisi, who is currently Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera. The program was hardly extraordinary, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, but the performances were way out of the ordinary. Violinist David Chan, soloist in the Beethoven, doesn’t have the most commanding presence and his sound was sometimes a bit lost in the balance. But he approached the music with imagination and even added a few embellishments and an apparently improvised little cadenza between the second and third movements. Luisi had the orchestra playing with amazing precision and just the right level of expression for this generally placid music. In the Brahms I noticed what seemed to me like some exaggerated changes of tempo, but with playing on this level a few minor interpretive quirks didn’t mean much. It was a memorable concert. TON will be back at Bard in the fall; info at www.theorchestranow.org.
One way I judge my summers is by how many Aston Magna concerts I get to at Bard College. This series of performances by early music specialists offers some of the best music-making in the Hudson Valley. This year’s series began at the Bitó Conservatory on Friday, June 16, with an intriguing program called “Music for Forbidden Dances.” The first half was devoted to early music, the second half to 20th century Latin dances. The program opened with an entertaining medley of 17th century sarabandes and chaconnes, then presented more examples of each dance, including the famous Bach Chaconne played in dancelike fashion by AM’s Music Director, violinist Daniel Stepner. The Latin portion included music by Carlos Gardel, Luis Del Curto, Astor Piazzolla, and Robert Xavier Rodriguez, the last a suite of pieces based on documents from 1913-14 discussing and condemning the tango. Frank Kelley was the highly entertaining narrator and singer, and even executed a few dance moves. This was my first opportunity to hear a live bandoneon player, Hector del Curto (grandson of the composer), who also explained in the pre-concert talk the differences between the bandoneon and the accordion. He and his wife, cellist Jisoo Ok, are the parents of clarinetist Santiago del Curto, who played with outstanding technique and tone and looked to be about ten years old. I just loved this evening and I was dismayed that only about three dozen people joined me in the audience.
Twice as many people, still a small crowd in my opinion, turned up for the June 23 concert, “Late, Great Mozart,” a completely apt title. The Divertimento in E Flat, K. 563, despite its title, is a deeply serious and profound work, for string trio. Hearing it on baroque period instruments, which were still used in Mozart’s time, emphasized a gentle approach and facilitated excellent balance, but the Menuetto was still bouncy enough. The Adagio and Fugue, K. 546, is highly dramatic Mozart, rarely heard. Clarinetist Eric Hoeprich, an early-music star, joined the fine string players for the great Clarinet Quintet, playing a specially designed basset clarinet with a lower range than the standard clarinet, apparently what Mozart wrote his piece for. Its rich, mellow sound in Hoeprich’s hands was simply gorgeous, and I even heard some embellishments (a big plus factor for me) from Hoeprich and the strings. All credit to violinists Daniel Stepner and Julie Leven, violist David Miller, and cellist Loretta O’Sullivan for a memorable evening.
Aston Magna still has two concerts to go at Bard (and two more after that in other locations). On June 30 the great soprano Dominique Labelle joins instrumentalists for “Arias and Sinfonias from Biblical Cantatas an Oratorios” from the baroque era. On July 7, violinist Edson Scheid plays as challenging a program as exists, the complete Caprices for solo violin by Paganini, on a period violin. Aston Magna’s ticket price is higher than most local concerts ($45) but these concerts are always worth hearing. Info at www.astonmagna/org, where you can also buy tickets.
I didn’t get to the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle this summer, but Jay Wenk covered the concert of June 17 at Olin Hall, Bard College. He writes: Joseph Kalichstein, piano, Bella Hristova, violin, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola, and Sharon Robinson, cello, engaged in music of Schubert, Mozart and Brahms. The 19-year-old Schubert’s piece is his String Trio, No. 1, in B-flat Major, first movement only; the second movement was unfinished. It was joyous to hear his early singing phrases and harmonic changes that light up our musical world. Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1 was performed with the delicious clarity and building on themes that we adore. The applause for these two works was justifiably sustained. After the interval, we were presented with Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25. Here, I was troubled by the lack of balance; the piano out-muscled the strings. There were passages where I could not hear any pizzicato and sometimes bowed sections were close to inaudible, although the piano plowed ahead manfully. I don’t understand why, since the balance was excellent with Mozart. Certainly, Brahms writes denser music than Mozart, but I think the uproarious applause for this performance was based on the audience being swayed by loudness.
LG returning: It’s too early to cover the Bard Music Festival (look for that next column), but just in time to alert you to PianoSummer at SUNY New Paltz. The major concerts this year, all at McKenna Theater, are the Faculty Gala, which usually sells out, on July 15; Ilya Rashkovskiy, July 22 (both Saturdays); and the Flier Competition Gala (for which I am a judge) on Friday, July 28, all at 7 p.m. In addition PianoSummer offers several smaller events, including student recitals, master classes, and the Flier Competition itself. Details are available at www.newpaltz.edu/piano, and I’d urge all lovers of classical piano music to check out this stimulating festival.