Elastic Brio: Menlo’s Overture Concert

An inspiring, rare moment of collaboration marked the Friday, August 2nd Overture Concert at [email protected]’s Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, the occasion’s inviting young, International Program artists to share the stage with seasoned veterans, in the spirit of musical pedagogy and performance-practice. In music by Beethoven, Franck, and Brahms, the participants emanated a thoroughly integrated and often feverishly intense series of performances that point to the active musicians’ futures as much as to their appreciation of past masters, a thoroughly happy meeting of youthful hopes and experienced professionals.                                             

The program opened with Beethoven’s 1795 Piano Trio in G Major, Op. 1, No. 2, one of three Beethoven wrote for the soirees of Prince Lichnowsky, to be performed in the presence of the revered Joseph Haydn. Soovin Kim, violin; Jonah Ellsworth, cello; and Tomer Gewirtzman, piano collaborated in this spry, fertile composition, in which Beethoven expands the medium into four movements rather than the traditional three. Even in the opening, slow introduction, a sense of elastic brio permeated the ensemble, each player relishing the other’s sound. Typically, Beethoven delays resting on the home key until he astounds and disturbs us with his harmonic wanderings. Having set a kind of knocking rhythm in the Allegro vivace, the principals moved with easy facility through the composer’s often surprising turns of phrase and keys. The second movement, Largo con espressione, presented us a song without words in E Major, a source of much of the Mendelssohn response to such calling. True, the typical progression would have been to C Major, but Beethoven fulfills this expectation only selectively. The occasional interchanges between violinist Kim and cellist Ellsworth touched us, especially given that the work does tend to highlight what would have been Beethoven’s own piano part. The Scherzo: Allegro again announces Beethoven’s slightly raised fist against convention, the high spirits moving in testy chromatics, while the B Minor Trio made a nod to Haydn’s influence in folk rhythm. The Finale: Presto had the audience tapping its collective feet, a rousing gallop brilliant in its canons and tricky “equivalents” for string and piano tablature: Kim’s repeated notes become on the piano a trill, and then each instrument appears to mock the other! Quite a spicy appetizer for the voluptuous feast that ensued!

In a change of program, the Piano Quintet in F Minor of Cesar Franck (1879) followed the Beethoven, our hostess Ms. Wu Han having explained that the ensembles wanted the evening to end on a sunny note of the Brahms G Major Sextet. Among the most tempestuous of French chamber music works, the Franck Quintet “depicts” the fact that Franck had fallen in love with one of his pupils, Augusta Holmès, who started studying with him in 1875. Camille Saint-Saens, the dedicatee and first pianist of this colossus, literally stomped off the stage in a rage after the last chord, adamant that this music went beyond the accepted pale. Rumor has it that Ms. Holmes had rejected Saint-Saens as a possible suitor. Despite its chromatic intensities and volatile eroticism, Franck builds his edifice upon Classical principles. Our participants – Reuben Rengel and Luke Hsu, violins; Richard O’Nelll, viola; Rainer Crosett, cello; and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, piano – sensed early that unrelieved passions would dictate the nature of their performance: the first movement Molto moderato quasi lento – Allegro converges on a single tone in dotted rhythm, dramatico, in the strings, answered by the keyboard’s espressivo. The tension of this storm never abates, given the ceaseless modulations in the bass lines. 

The A Minor Lento, con molto sentimento, conforms to the ternary style of Schubert, utilizing the music of the first movement – Franck’s signature cyclic strategy – hovering around one note and demanding a long note in the middle of each bar line. The major – minor shifts move with restless gravity, and the ardor of our performers assumed even more blistering currency than in movement one. Perforce, the music graduates into the finale, Allegro non troppo, ma con fuoco, as if anyone required more fire in this performance.  From tremolo violins that melody seemed to arise, like the fatal passion of Tristan and Isolde, from ineluctable impulses from piano and cello. The melody glides in the midst of unstable, jarring harmonies, oblivious to the world it dismantles. Wild and fierce, the mood of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” confronted us,  the cosmic convulsions apparently a threat to the original, Franck music community, but sheer rapture to the inflamed audience at Menlo. 

The evening’s finale came in the form of harmonious strings, the 1865 String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 88 of Johannes Brahms, as performed by Max and Alice Ivy-Pemberton, violins; Tabitha Rhee and Haeji Kim, violas; and Jared Blajian and Keith Robinson, cellos. Much like the Quintet of Franck, the Brahms work holds romantic associations – for soprano Agathe von Siebold, whose name, anagram-style, appears in the secondary theme of movement one – of thwarted infatuation. This opening movement, Allegro non troppo, opened with rising fifths that suggest a luxurious but autumnal breadth of spirit.  The unhurried yet often canonic development traverses some fertile harmonic ground, into B Major, having sung Agathe’s theme with resonant, arched tenderness.  The second movement Scherzo: Allegro non troppo proffered some rustic gestures rife with nostalgia – disarmingly restrained – with strong, expressive exclamations from the viola parts.  The heart of the work, the third movement Poco adagio, clearly moved us in the manner of a melancholy love song. Chromatic descents and sighs marked the music’s bittersweet progression, ardent in the voices of violas and cellos. The harmonic shift, E Minor to E Major, though suggestive of a moment of emotional reprieve did not offer definitive consolation. The finale, however, Poco presto, found our participants in a bravura mood, swept away by a crafty finesse we find in Mendelssohn, if we sought a model for the Brahms combination of dexterity and polyphony. Only the latter half of the movement did some clouds of memory return, to be whisked away in eddies of color, genial canons, and an unabashed joy of living in the vibrant coda.

End

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