Above: violinist Sean Lee, photo by Eric Ryan Anderson
~ Author: Oberon
Tuesday December 5th, 2017 - Music of the great composers of the Baroque era was on offer at Alice Tully Hall this evening as Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center kicked off the holiday season with a really delightful program. The players who drew together to make music for us tonight were culled straight from the Society's A-list of world-class musicians; they are all artists I greatly admire, and there was one new discovery for me: harpsichordist Michael Sponseller.
Thrilling performances by two string soloists in concerti by Bach and Telemann, and the evocative sound of the oboe d'amore in a Couperin dance-suite, were among the highlights of the evening; but really, the entire program - from first note to last - was deeply satisfying in every regard. Roughly 60 years of musical history were encapsulated here, from a Vitali chaconne (1682) thru to one of Handel's iconic concerti grossi, dating from 1739. This is how they do things at Chamber Music Society.
It was the Handel that opened the evening in a striking ensemble performance. Todd Phillips took the concertmaster's chair and the evening was off to a regal start. Mention must be made right away of the excellent continuo provided throughout the evening by Mr. Sponseller, at the Society's gorgeous harpsichord, and double-bassist Anthony Manzo. The score is packed full of treats, making it an ideal holiday-season offering: a charming fugue, a stately but somewhat swift march, a poignant Largo - in which Mr. Phillips and Adam Barnett-Hart traded phrases of delicious tone-quality - a lively Allegro, and a courtly, sweet Minuet.
Stephen Taylor (above, in a Matt Dine portrait) was joined by cellist Timothy Eddy and Mr. Sponseller for François Couperin's Concert Royal #4, composed in 1722. A set of dances wends its way from a plaintive Prelude thru a light-textured Allemande and a happy Courante françoise. The winding melody of the Courante Italianne has a particular charm, and an elegant Sarabande and a witty Rigaudon dance us onward to the concluding Forlane rondeau where the gentle flow of the music embraced two solo harpsichord passages, elegantly turned by Mr. Sponseller. Mr. Taylor's playing throughout showed an appealing mixture of liveliness and grace, and he found marvelous subtleties in the music with which to lure us in.
J S Bach's Violin Concerto in A-minor, BWV 1041, found violinist Sean Lee on top form, drawing a vociferous ovation from the audience whilst his colleagues onstage stamped their feet and tapped their bows, and refused to stand up for a bow until Sean had time to bask in the glow of his triumphant performance.
Mr. Lee has a new 'look': his jet-black hair is now slicked back into a short ponytail. This leaves his expressive facial features in high relief as he plays. And what playing! The three-movement concerto asks much of its soloist, from long paragraphs of agility in the outer movements to tonal purity and depth of feeling in the Andante; throughout, Mr. Lee displayed his manifest talents, to the audience's rapt enjoyment.
In the slow movement, the violinist's sense of graciousness and his satin-sheen tone really reached the heart, and his achingly beautiful sustained notes were truly affecting. A touch or two of rubato in the concluding Allegro assai added to Mr. Lee's superb interpretation. This was the second time I've experienced Sean Lee in an outstanding 'soloist' role at Chamber Music Society. Both times, he had the audience - and his colleagues - in the palm of his hand.
Short and sweet: in a three-minute Ciaccona by Giovanni Battista Vitali, the Escher Quartet's incredible violinist Adam Barnett-Hart was joined by Mssrs. Eddy and Sponseller. A theme-and-variations setting, the music flows seamlessly from gently animated lyricism to livelier, dance-like passages. It was expertly played.
Above: violist Matthew Lipman, photo by Jiyang Chen.
The music of Telemann brought forth the engaging and ultra-talented Matthew Lipman; the rich-violet colour of his viola's sound as well as the poise and grace of his physical presence held the audience under his spell. Mr. Lipman is one of those musicians who cannot contain his sheer happiness in playing for us; even in the more serious Largo movement, his sense of joy was held just below the surface.
With Mr. Phillips providing limpid phrases as concertmaster, Mr. Lipman - having changed into black trousers and a fitted black shirt - immersed himself in the music from the start, and he surely drew inspiration from the committed playing of his colleagues: Bella Hristova (violin), Pierre Lapointe (viola), Brook Speltz (cello), and Mssers. Manzo and Sponseller. What a tapestry of sound they wove! Mr. Lipman's cadenza was marvelous to hear.
In the joyous Allegro that follows, Mr. Lipman's virtuosity was something to marvel at, and in the abrupt change of mood to the Andante's beautifully sustained, lamenting melody, his tone glowed: plush and warm. In the uplifting finale, Mr. Lipman's fluent coloratura was abounding in both energy and finesse. The CMS audience erupted in applause before the bows were off the strings.
Who other than Vivaldi could crown such a performance? The Red Priest's music exemplifies the beauty and bounty of the Baroque era, and tonight's playing of his Concerto in F major for Three Violins, Strings, and Continuo crowned the evening to perfect effect.
A trio of violinists - Ms. Hristova, Mr. Phillips, and Chad Hoopes - vied in friendly competition to see who could play the sweeter or the swifter. Meanwhile, Timothy Eddy's cello and Anthony Manzo's double-bass had some coloratura of their own to deal with; they dealt it in spades. In the central Andante, Ms. Hristova plucked her violin with rhythmic clarity as her two fellow violinists played a wistful melody: this had the magical effect of a mandolinata. The concluding Allegro sails forward, propelled by Mr. Manzo's deep notes. Mr. Sponseller, obscured from view much of the evening, was rightly summoned forward as the audience lavished applause on these remarkable players.
I guess I have been too wrapped up in a million other things to have noted the personnel change in my beloved Escher Quartet: Aaron Boyd has stepped away from the ensemble, and the lovely Danbi Um has taken his place. Such changes are bound to happen from time to time in the world of classical music, and I wish everyone involved in this shift continued joy in playing.
- Handel Concerto Grosso in D major for Two Violins, Cello, Strings, and Continuo, Op. 6, No. 5 (1739)
- Couperin Concert Royal No. 4 in E minor for Oboe d'Amore and Continuo (1722)
- Bach Concerto in A minor for Violin, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1041 (c. 1730)
- Vitali Ciaccona from Varie partite del passemezo, ciaccona, capricii, e passagalii for Two Violins and Continuo, Op. 7 (1682)
- Telemann Concerto in G major for Viola, Strings, and Continuo (c. 1716-21)
- Vivaldi Concerto in F major for Three Violins, Strings, and Continuo, RV 551 (1711)