The 8th annual “Music in May” weekend of chamber music at Peace Church, performing to a near capacity audience, opened with a program of some of the finest music making of the year. The program opened with the Aria and five variations from Bach’s Goldberg Variations arranged by Dmitry Sitkovestsky for string Trio. The Goldberg Variations, in its original form for harpsichord, is one of the supreme musical masterpieces of the ages and originally consisted of 30 variations. The arrangement for string trio does no disservice to the original version and, in fact, allows us to relish the soaring contrapuntal lines masterfully nuanced and phrased by the performers.
Rebecca Jackson, founding Artistic Director of the Music In May, and a violinist of extraordinary industry, capacity and talent, played along with violist, Alexandra Leem and cellist, Jonah Kim in Bach’s masterpiece in an arrangement, which consisted of the Aria and the first four of the variations, plus a final reprise of the aria.
Audiences respond to a performer’s joy and excitement in making music. It is this quality, along with consummate technical and expressive command that was seen in the broad smiling face of cellist, Jonah Kim. With his many performing achievements as soloist, ensemble player and winner of the 2002 Philadelphia Orchestra top performance prize (which earned him a subsequent solo appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra “Star of Tomorrow), it is no wonder that Joseph McLellan of the Washington Post dubbed him as “the next Yo Yo Ma.”
Mozart’s four-movement Viola String Quintet K. 516, No. 4, (occasionally listed as No. 3) for two violins, two violas and cello followed the Bach and was the final work before intermission. Set in G minor, a key associated with his more inward-searching mood (and composed in 1787, within one year of the Great Symphony in G Minor, K. 550), it would seem that in expression and spirit both works seem to have been cut from the same cloth.
This mostly somber introspective work possesses all the finest attributes of Mozart’s genius — an impeccable sense of form and grace, wordless drama, new musical ideas constantly fabricated from the old, and in both these mature works subtleties of expression amidst sudden and unexpected shifting tonalities and cadences. Ever the dramatist, Mozart’s extended instrumental compositions are mini-operas without words and with the characters being represented by beautiful melodic fragments occurring and recurring in different contexts and keys. All of this and more is contained in this 30-minute masterpiece.
Unlike the G minor symphony of the year to follow, the G minor quintet has the expressive effect of a chamber music mini “Ode to Joy,” with the last movement beginning with a warm compassionate searching G Minor adagio, which slowly fades to a sudden burst to light and concludes with a joyous G major allegro.
This was a memorable performance, which at times threatened to burst the bounds of 18th century stylistic restraint and to partake of the warm passion of 19th century romanticism. It was restrained by the intelligence and mastery of the players whose shared chemistry seemed at times to the audience, nearly palpable as they energetically played off the musical cues of each other’s parts while creating a unified sense of ensemble.
A string quintet, or more properly in this case, a viola quintet because it features an extra viola part, while being an ensemble of equals, usually begins with the first violinist as the leader that everyone looks to, at least for the beginning and ending. Once the piece is underway, the role of leadership is like a ball passed from one player to the next. In this, it was clear that the leadership role was largely occupied by Martin Beaver, former first violin of the famed Tokyo String Quartet, and cellist, Jonah Kim. There was no question, however, that all the players were highly seasoned chamber musicians who knew how to energize the music and each other throughout the performance.
This being a work that features an extra viola, it was richly endowed with special melodic lines expressively played by Alexandra Leem. At other times, she, together with the other violist Liang Ping How, blended together to form a rich inner texture at the core of the ensemble. It was from this center, that 1st violinist, Martin Beaver and 2nd violinist Rebecca Jackson could soar with lyric abandon.
The concluding work after intermission, the four-movement Mendelsohn Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49, featured Danish pianist, Katrine Gislinge. The piano parts of both Mendelsohn’s piano trios are at least as difficult if not more difficult than either of his two piano concertos.
There were a few minor moments scattered throughout the faster movements of the piece when the pianist seemed overcome with the excitement of the music and got carried away, resulting in some slight unclear phrasing and rushed passages. Overall this was a minor detriment and may even to some of the audience, contributed to the passionate excitement of the performance. I wonder however, if they would have appreciated it as much had the whole work been performed with a little more ‘Mendelsoh-nian” restraint, more in the manner of the famous recording by Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma and Emmanuel Axe recording.
At the conclusion of the Mendelsohn Trio, the audience leaped as one to their feet giving a long and vociferous applause requiring the performers to return for bows three times.
And so, the first of the two Music in May programs lived up to its much-deserved reputation as being one of the Santa Cruz musical high points of the year.