The finely-honed [email protected] summer series concluded Saturday evening, August 5, with “National Flavors,” a highly diverse and musically challenging array of compositions whose scale and intensity, while varied, did not lack for stylistic panache and gorgeous showmanship. A thoroughly enthusiastic audience graced the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, eager to experience the culmination of the fifteenth anniversary season which had assiduously celebrated “The Glorious Violin.”
Violinist Danbi Um and cellist Nicholas Canellakis intiated the proceedings with Bohuslav Martinu’s 1927 Duo No. 1, a two-movement work that exploits the tonal range of the respective instruments, set in a modal, angular syntax enriched by multiple stopping on the strings. The first movement Praeludium: Andante moderato had Danbi and Canellakis share the melodic tissue and shuttle into improvisation until the calm atmosphere returned at movement’ end. The piece indulged Martinu’s Parisian sense of Jazz in striking syncopations that led to cellist Canellakis’ extended solo, which rather lit up our ears. The lyric appeal of this music had us in thrall when violinist Um joined in for a mad dash to the gratifying finale.
Solo violin Bella Hristova – who resembles a young version of actress Alice Krige – stepped upon the stage to dazzle us with a series of Red Violin Caprices, John Corigliano’s virtuosic score for the 1998 film by Francois Girard. The movie involves a cursed instrument, so each of the pieces assumes something of Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill,” since a particular doom follows anyone who possesses the violin, whose varnish contains human blood. A poignant display of techniques – emanating from Bach and Paganini – derive from the same seven chords of the opening chaconne, which then beguile us in differing gypsy and romantic styles. We would later enjoy Htistova’s mesmeric style in the Octet by Enescu.
The Slavic impulse in music continued with Ernő Dohnányi’s 1924 duo, Ruralia Hungarica, Op. 32c, as performed by Danbi Um and pianist Hyeyeon Park, a relatively brief excursion into Magyar and gypsy folk music. The singular material adapted from an original piano suite, Andante rubato, alla zingaresca, provided a kind of salon or café romantic indulgence, sentimental and affectionate.
The first half of the concert concluded with the savage wit and acerbic sentiment of Dmitry Shostakovich, whose 1925 Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, Op. 11 featured a mighty handful of participants on a roller-coaster ride: Arnaud Sussmann, Soovin Kim, Bella Hristova, and Danbi Um, violins; Paul Neubauer and Richard O’Neill, violas; and Nicholas Canellakis and David Finckel, cellos. The Prelude by the eighteen-year-old composer had all the ingredients for any enfant terrible about to shatter some sacred icons: thick, monumental chromatic chords from the tutti, followed by dramatically quiet utterances from Sussmann’s violin recitative. This sustained sense of anxiety led to a section played spiccato, the bouncing of the bows’ dictating an ironic stance in baroque style, in the form of a canon. The ensuing Scherzo provided no less than a frontal assault on our senses in “orchestral” sonority, with a barrage of effects in tremolo, pizzicati, and glissando – all of which meant to disturb any complacency we might have preserved in the face of what had seemed a “classical format.”
For the majority of tonight’s audience, the real find came in the form of Romanian composer Georges Enescu’s 1900 Octet in C Major, Op. 7, a startling, expressionistic work that looked at once back to Schubert and forward to Schoenberg. For this ensemble, several musicians either changed roles or now appeared in concert: Bella Hristova, Danbi Um, Arnaud Sussmann and Soovin Kim, violins; Paul Neubauer and Richardd O’Neill, violas; and Nicholas Canellakis and Clive Greensmith, cellos. Hristiva’ passionate concertante part often had her voice-leading the intricate, many-layered textures Enescu presents, either in strict counterpoint or in colloquy with the ardent viola tone of Paul Neubauer. This one-movement work falls into four traditional movements, much as Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy,” Liszt’s B Minor Piano Sonata, and Schoenberg’s sextet Verklaerte Nacht, whose chromatic harmony seemed more than echoed at various junctures in Enescu’s explosive piece.
What struck us in this rare encounter lay in Enescu’s treatment of each player as an independent voice, as in the first movement Tres modère, in which some six motifs undergo exposition and then a series of transpositions and fragmentations, all in a remarkable display of counterpoint, as homage to Enescu’s teacher, Andre Gedalge. The often modal, pedal-pointed melodies assumed colors from Gypsy and Romanian folk music, but tinted by clusters of passing dissonances that reminded us of French models, Faure and Roussel. The aggressive Scherzo – marked Très fougueux – had a kind unison frenzy we might associate with Liszt, stringent and polyphonic, confrontational and wild. Without any break, the slow movement Lentement opened into an extended lyric of absorbing beauty worthy of Massenet. And just as suddenly, the through-composed opening materials transformed into a superheated waltz that announced the blistering finale, a mounting furor of execution in every bar in each player – so that viola O’Neill could barely keep his seat – attaining the character of a chorale and delirium tremens. That a nineteen-year-old composer had wrought such a crucible of emotion held players and audience equally in awe, until its post-Wagnerian convulsions sent everyone into a frenzy of appreciation.