Clarinetist Steve Sánchez joined the string players Christina Mok and Tina Minn (violins), Chad Kaltinger (viola), and Drew Ford (cello) on Friday evening, October 7th for the inaugural concert of a series presented by the Monterey Symphony Chamber Players in the friendly acoustic of All Saints’ Church, Carmel.
While there is no shortage of high-quality chamber music concerts in the area, they are typically performed by groups who play and tour together full-time, and hence tend to program works for their exact combination of instruments. This new venture of the Monterey Symphony has the opportunity to fill a niche by offering greater variety of ensembles within each program, and so we heard three works, all with different instrumentation – two of them rarely heard, while the third was an acknowledged masterpiece.
To most of the audience, the Hungarian composer Kókai would have been previously unknown, but his Quartettino for Clarinet and String Trio proved to be charming and readily accessible. The modesty of the diminutive title was carried through the headings of the four movements: Sonatina, Scherzino, Canzonetta,and Finaletto. This was a composer who knew how to avoid outstaying his welcome! Although Kókai was younger than Bartók and Kodály, his use of Hungarian folksongs was much less radical than theirs, being basically tonal with slightly altered scales. It was immediately apparent that Sánchez had an attractive clarinet tone, and a vocal quality that suited the many folk song melodies, while the string trio provided mostly rhythmic support. The first movement had a memorable little throw-away effect before the brief coda, and the second was notable for its pp playing, and a languorous slow waltz section. The haunting slow movement was the deepest emotionally, and sounded familiar – did Bartók use the same tune? Finally, the group was well together in the rousing Presto.
The Dvořák Terzetto for Two Vioins and Viola, Op.74, is by no means so rarely performed, although string quartets are shy of programming it since it involves consigning the cellist to idleness backstage, and it is the kind of music that no one wants to be left out of. There is a classic recording by the Vlach group from Prague, and while the Monterey players did not capture so intensely the Czech idiom, they made it clear that the Terzetto is a fine work from Dvořák’s maturity, with three delightfully sunny movements followed by a strangely disturbing Theme and Variations. The theme is hesitant, and the variations struggle to stay away from minor keys. There is a passionate violin solo over tremolos, and altogether a somber, cautionary context is provided for the brief happy ending.
After the Intermission, we heard a quite exceptional performance of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, with Steve Sánchez in top form, and the string quartet matching his level of inspiration. It is always going to be the case that the clarinetist will have spent many more hours studying this work than the string players, but there was a fine unanimity of style and purpose in the ensemble. The first movement exposition was repeated, which made the movement rather long, but had the advantage of drawing attention to the magic of the transition to the development section. It was really from this point that the performance seemed to take off. The exposition had been on the brisk side, even fractionally rushed, but from here on, the musical choices were impeccable, until the final two B minor chords, when the low D was barely audible (the same happened again right at the end of the work). This left the open fifth of the clarinet F sharp creating a more desolate effect than the weighty resignation of the minor triad as usually heard.
The slow movement is the emotional heart of the work, and this was totally compelling. The duet in the major between clarinet and violin was wonderfully well done, with Christina Mok on violin repeating the melody piano over the clarinet’s delayed counterpoint, before the transition to the wild gypsy-like middle section which decorates the same melody in the minor. The fluidity of Sánchez’s arpeggios in sixteenths (and later in thirty-seconds) was breathtaking, creating the passionate excitement that Brahms intended. The considerable rubato was all natural and convincing, until the storm blew over and the music returned to the serenity of the major key, with perfect poise and enchanting pianissimo.
In the third movement, Brahms inverts the usual structure of a trio form and places the lively Presto in between the gentler Andantino sections. All of this was beautifully done, and led to the final theme and variations. Here everyone gets a chance to shine, including Drew Ford with his fine execution of the wide intervals in the cello variation, and Chad Kaltinger with the warm 3/8 viola variation, joined by Tina Minn an octave above on second violin. Then came the sad recollections of how this remarkable journey had started out at the beginning and end of the first movement. The final chord died away and left the audience silent for as long as I can remember, before the enthusiastic applause broke out.
The music was too conclusive to be followed by an encore, so we were then treated to a reception to meet the artists and enjoy sumptuous refreshments. All told, a thrilling start to the new series.