Above: violist Yura Lee
Sunday May 22nd, 2016 - Bringing together a sextet of first-class string players, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the final program of their Alice Tully Hall season (a program which will be repeated on Tuesday, May 24th); music by Richard Strauss, Brahms, and Dvořák was on offer.
In Richard Strauss's intimate opera CAPRICCIO, a rehearsal of Flamand's newly-composed string sextet is in progress as the curtain rises on the salon of the Countess Madeleine's château. As the opera evolves, the Countess will be called upon by her rival suitors - the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier - to answer the eternal question, "Which is the greater art, poetry or music?", and thus to determine which of the two gentleman she favors. The opera, which includes the beloved Moonlight Music and ends with the Countess's ravishing final aria, has been a vehicle for such beloved sopranos as Lisa Della Casa, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Renee Fleming.
It was a real treat to hear the string sextet this evening in a concert setting, and especially as it was given such a radiant performance by today's ensemble...an ensemble of stars. Erin Keefe, wearing a striking pleated gown of gunmetal grey which set off her auburn hair, displayed (all evening, really) her ability to spin out magical phrases over a vast dynamic spectrum: she can taper her tone down to a shimmering piano/pianissimo only to soar in full-bodied melody moments later. Across from Ms. Keefe, Yura Lee, in a deep persimmon shawl and be-jeweled stilettos, summoned heartfelt sounds from her viola. A delicious "trembling" motif heralded Nicholas Canellakis' solo, with his lustrous depth of tone.
As Wu Han remarked in a program note, one of the things players love most about performing string sextets is: you have a mate playing the same instrument sitting next to you. And when - as in today's Strauss - these are musicians of the calibre of Ani Kavafian (violin), Matthew Lipman (viola), and David Finckel (cello), the level of music-making is off the charts. Such gorgeous and immaculate blendings of sound, and such congenial lyricism.
From the Strauss, so deeply engaging both musically and emotionally, the players turned to Johannes Brahms' String Quintet No. 1. This piece was a particular favorite of the composer himself, or at least that is the impression he gave in writing this to his publisher: “You have never before had such a beautiful work from me.”
Ms. Kavafian took the lead here, playing with her signature grace and expressiveness; she and Ms. Keefe formed a de luxe violin duo, their voices mingling with engaging clarity and savoring their many pinpoint dynamic nuances. In the melodically abounding first movement of this work, Yura Lee's viola sings - three times - a melody that brings to mind some of the composer's most beloved lieder. At one point, Yura and Ani 'converse' with one another. Nick Canellakis's cello gives the music its resonant grounding, whilst Mr. Lipman's evident enjoyment of the music he is playing makes him a musician as pleasing to watch as to hear.
In the quintet's second movement, the instrumental voices created a lovely chorale-like atmosphere; a more animated interlude soon gives way to a return to wistfulness, and then fades mysteriously away. For the concluding Allegro energico, the five players could cavort amiably thru the rhythmic shifts with zestful playing and much mutual eye-contact as the piece sailed on to its merry conclusion.
Following the interval, Antonin Dvořák's Sextet in A-major, with its goodly portion of folkish elements, found all six players on optimum form. Right from the start, with Erin Keefe's shining tone in the opening theme, one could sense we were in for a special treat. Nick Canellakis took up the melodic thread as the Allegro moderato proceeded thru some very imaginative harmonies.
[A cellphone went off, but at least it was between movements...and it was a 'classical-music' ringtone.]
In the second movement, Dumka: Elegie; Poco allegretto, a dance which is at once both droll and dolorous is heard. The music has a sad gypsy lilt. David Finckel's cello sets up a treading motif, over which a lament from his fellow players suggests a walk to the graveyard. In a swift change of mood, the Furiant: Presto is lively as fleeting snatches of melody pass from voice to voice. A swaying feeling pervades the music.
The resonantly poetic sound of Matthew Lipman's viola sets forth the theme of the final movement; variations follow where we could again savour the silver-lit sheen of Ms. Keefe's playing and delight once more in her ability to colour phrases with her dynamic gradations.
A sprightly dance gives way to a thoughtful cello theme from Mr. Canellakis; things intensify before subtle turns of phrase draw us to a lingering fade-out. Ms. Keefe weaves a new variation on the melody as Mr. Finckel and the violas offer plucking support. And then a high-energy dance bursts forth, only to accelerate to double-time before an urgent rising motif sends us on to a grand finish.
The players were called out twice by the delighted audience; both the players and their admirers seemed reluctant for the concert - and the season - to end.
Now we will have a hiatus from CMS concerts, though the musicians we've come to love will stay busy playing here, there, and everywhere worldwide. For the second year, the Society will offer a Summer festival at Alice Tully Hall - details here - which will help to sustain us til the Autumn.
- Strauss Sextet for Strings from CAPRICCIO, Op. 85 (1940-41, arr. 1943)
- Brahms Quintet in F major for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello, Op. 88 (1882)
- Dvořák Sextet in A major for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Two Cellos, Op. 48 (1878)
The Participating Artists: