The Maverick Concerts 104th season is now well underway. As I’ve mentioned, the Sunday classical concerts are almost entirely string quartet ensembles, until the last week, although there are also some pianists involved. On Sunday, July 7, the excellent Escher String Quartet made a welcome return to Maverick. (I’d heard them only a month earlier, at the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle at Bard.) This program was quite different from the HVCMC, including a temporary personnel change, Brendan Speltz substituting at second violin for the injured Danbi Um. Speltz fit in seamlessly; perhaps he is quite familiar with the Escher style since his brother Brook is the group’s cellist.
There can never be too much Haydn for me, so I was deeply gratified by the mellow yet clear sound of the ensemble in the Quartet in C, Op. 20, No. 2. All of Haydn’s Quartets from Op. 9 onward are worth programming, so I’m glad that some of the earlier ones are getting played more. The lower strings, viola and cello, were more prominent than usual in this concert, which I greatly appreciated. All of these composers wrote for the instruments as equals, not violins with accompaniment.
The ensemble’s sound underwent a dramatic metamorphosis, as it should, for Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10, in A Flat, Op. 110. All the Shostakovich Quartets of the 1960s are very intense music, and this one was played with great intensity combined with the clarity of sharp articulation, a memorable experience. So was Smetana’s great Quartet No. 1, “From My Life,” which again produced a different sound from the Eschers. I have inside information that the group’s highly romantic approach to this music is informed by their having heard the great 1928 recording by the Bohemian Quartet, with its freedom of tempo and portamento (sliding from note to note, common in the romantic era and very scarce today).
By odd coincidence, the Jasper String Quartet showed up on July 14 also with a substitute second violinist, Robert Anemone replacing Karen Kim, who was “absent for family reasons,” presumably not another injury. This ensemble has a different sound from the Eschers, less rich in tone, and occasionally marred on the first half by thin tone from first violinist J Freivogel. But I was still pleased with the amusing exaggerations in Hugo Wolf’s lovely “Italian Serenade,” the only one of his few instrumental works which is still performed. The group’s sound enlarged considerably for Beethoven’s Quartet No. 7, in F, Op. 59, No. 1, but it still remained properly quartet-sized. (Some quartets attempt to sound like a string orchestra, with varying results.) This performance brought out very imaginative qualities from the players, and the third movement was properly fervent, a great success.
Composer Julia Wolfe has won not only the Pulitzer Prize in Music but also a MacArthur Fellowship. If all her music is like “Four Marys,” I’d say it’s a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The first half of this ten-minute piece was made up of some of the most unpleasant sounds I’ve ever heard from string instruments, frequently imitating the sound of sirens; it then broke into a stomping tuneless dance. The audience received it politely, and I am too polite to boo at a concert, but I have to say this is some of the worst music I’ve ever heard. Fortunately, the concert returned to glory with a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9, in E Flat, Op. 117, another of Shostakovich’s masterpieces. I especially appreciated the full dynamic range of the third movement and the convincing execution of the startling ending.
I caught two other Maverick events in the first half of July. On Saturday, July 6, Happy Traum and Friends presented a Pete Seeger 100th birthday celebration. In the past I’ve complained mildly that Traum had too many friends on stage, resulting in a cluttered sound. But this time there were eight musicians, and on the rare occasions when everyone played together the music was still clear. The version of the old labor song “Joe Hill” came off sounding rather dirgelike, but otherwise I thought everything was splendid. Of course a solo by superstar banjoist Tony Trischka was outstanding. But the moment that brought tears to my eyes was hearing Happy Traum play Seeger’s great twelve-string guitar solo “Living in the Country.” For a few minutes I experienced the wonderful illusion that Seeger himself was onstage. This was a lovely evening, and I want to credit all the musicians: Happy, Trischka, Elizabeth Mitchell, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, Simi Stone, Adam Traum, and Dan Littleton. Thanks to every one. (Perhaps I should mention here that I first heard Seeger in person in 1956!)
On Thursday, July 11, Maverick sponsored a talk at the Kleinert/James Center by Amherst College professor Klára Móricz on “Shostakovich and His World,” with Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt on hand to ask questions. I found this talk quite illuminating, although I’m not sure that the “triumphant” finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is free of sarcasm and irony. Some Soviet musicians agree with me that this ending is too far over the top to be sincere.
And here comes PianoSummer, that July festival of piano performances, classes, and talks at SUNY New Paltz directed by Vladimir Feltsman. The Festival got underway on Saturday, July 13 at Studley Theater with the annual Faculty Gala, six instructors showing in performance what they teach. Paul Ostrovsky gave an expressive performance of Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata, with much attention to detail without losing the line. Robert Hamilton played six of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces with poetry and creamy rich tone. Newcomer Alexandre Moutouzkine didn’t make a good impression on me; his own arrangement of excerpts from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and his playing of it seemed very flashy, hectic, and noisy. The audience seemed to enjoy the noise. The Festival’s organizer Vladimir Feltsman, once known for his concentration on Bach, has been playing mostly 19th century music recently, to excellent effect. The three Chopin Nocturnes of Op. 9 had the rhythmic flexibility of the 19th century and downright gorgeous tone. Unless he had an alternate edition of No. 2, which is possible, I may have detected a bit of convincing improv. Philip Kawin played two of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12, and Liszt’s arrangement of a Schumann song. I thought he used too much pedal in No. 2 but otherwise his playing was lovely. Newcomer Haisun Paik played Ravel’s solo piano arrangement of his “La Valse” with a wonderful combination of flash and elegance. Bravo!
Forthcoming PianoSummer events include a student recital on July 18 at 7, a master class by Vadym Kholodenko on July 19 at 3, Kholodenko’s recital on the 20th at 7, a talk by pianist and recording producer b on the 23rd at 3, a student recital on the 25th at 7, and the concluding Flier Competition Gala (previous winners) on the 26th at 7. All events take place at Studley Theatre, which has lousy parking but lots of seats and quiet air conditioning. There’s lots of information at www.newpaltz.edu/piano.
And it’s time to start making your plans for the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, 15 events from August 2-4. Get information and tickets at www.phoeniciavoicefest.org/events.