Music in May returned Friday to celebrate a seventh season of quality chamber music concerts presented in the acoustically lively space of the Peace United Church of Santa Cruz. Under the leadership of violinist Rebecca Jackson, the players, who are friends and colleagues in various orchestras around the country, offered two varied programs of chamber music for piano and strings.
On Friday, May 16, the players offered a delicious variety of works in different instrumental combinations. Music in May founder Rebecca Jackson, violin, and Alexandra Leem, viola, began the concert with a charming performance of Mozart’s Duo from 1783. Cast in three movements, the work expresses the same beauty as the better-known Concertante for Violin and Viola of 1779. Given the large size of the concert venue however, the two players could have reached for larger and more sonorous gestures, but chose instead a rather a subdued mood. In any case, it was played with gorgeous intonation and seamless ensemble.
From the classical restraint of the 18th century, cellist Jonah Kim and pianist Christine McLeavey Payne brought us into the lush romanticism of the late 19th century with Serge Rachmaninoff’s passionate 1901 Sonata for Cello and Piano. Composed in the same year as his Piano Concerto No. 2, the two works share the same key of c minor and also the same sense of grandeur and large-scale statements. Cellist Kim plays this work with an extraordinary variety of tonal colors, often by adjusting the intensity, speed and amplitude of the vibrato in his left hand. As one would expect of this composer, the Sonata is full of long, soaring melodies. Kim has a different vibrato for each melody. Pianist McLeavey Payne was a perfect match for Kim, as she delivered the large and demanding part with confidence, making good use of the beautiful tone of the Yamaha piano. The second movement scherzo was ominous and scary in this performance.
Where the Rachmaninoff Sonata represents the fiery edge of 19th century romantic abandon, Regrets by Henri Vieutiemps is an example of cool and elegant restraint. Dating from 1864, this salon piece is concise in comparison to the Sonata. Violinist Liang-Ping How expressed the long lyrical statements in a narrative fashion, as if he were telling a story. Pianist Christine McLeavey Payne collaborated with skill and sensitivity, always matching the mood of the violin.
The players formed a string quartet for two single-movement works with roots in Spain. Joaquin Turina’s 1925 The Toreador’s Prayer (La Oración del Torero) reflects the tendencies of French and Spanish composers of the era, a colorful mix of impressionist effects and Spanish folkloric influences. Liberal use of harmonics and pizzicato add a lot of spice to the ebullient Spanish flavor of the piece.
The final work of the evening was the world premiere of “Night of Sleepless Love,” commissioned by Music in May from José González Granero. Born in 1985 in Spain, González Granero is currently principal clarinetist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and has been distinguished for composing and conducting.
The title of the quartet refers to a sonnet by Federico García Lorca, Noche del Amor Insomne. Reading the poem in the program booklet, I expected to hear something to match the dark despair of the poem. In contrast, it sparkled with energy as the players seemed to relish the technical challenges that made use of the full range of the instruments. The composer writes about his piece: “The whole piece is treated as a poem. The style features impressionism and Spanish color.”
The work is presented in one continuous movement, which I heard as two major distinct sections, at first lighter, then darker sounds. The first section has textures that are rich and full, alternating with more transparent textures that create an engaging environment. The piece evolves into lively and wild passages that brought this concert to an energetic close. The audience enjoyed the whole ride.