Four world-class musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performed the third and final concert of the CMS 2015-16 series in the Concert Hall at Drew University on Saturday evening, with a promise from co-artistic director Wu Han that they would be back in Madison next year.
This is excellent news, giving us the chance to hear performers who are among the best the world has to offer, without making a trip to the big city across the river. We learned that the Concert Hall at Drew has become popular with these stellar artists as a locale for recording sessions.
Saturday’s concert consisted mainly of piano quartets, featuring pianist Gilles Vonsattel, violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Paul Watkins.
The music ranged from the majesty of Beethoven to the wit and charm of Dohnanyi and the melodic richness of Dvorak. The Beethoven work, Quartet in E-flat major, Opus 16, was originally composed as a quintet for piano and wind instruments and reconfigured by the composer to make it more accessible to the growing home music market. The time was 1796.
The grandeur of the music begins with the piano as the leader. The other instruments weave their threads of sound into a gorgeous and stately tapestry. It proceeds through a majestic slow movement, ending in a lively rondo.
The piano had a break while the three strings collaborated in the wonderfully entertaining Serenade in C major, Opus 10, by Erno Dohnanyi, who was born just over a century after Beethoven. This delightful work was first performed in 1902.
A Hungarian, Dohnanyi was something of a prodigy. He composed the serenade when he was 25, shortly after he graduated from the Franz Liszt Academy. A successful piano virtuoso, he toured widely, and returned to Budapest in 1915, eventually to become director of the academy, where he promoted the burgeoning Hungarian music scene. He ultimately became a prominent symbol of resistance to Nazi ideology, resigning from his position rather than dismiss Jewish teachers. He then emigrated to the United States, where he lived an active life composing, teaching, recording and conducting, until his death in 1960.
The Serenade consists of five lively movements: a March, a Romanza, a Scherzo, a Theme and Variations and an energetic Rondo. A great part of the joy of observing the performance was watching the interaction of the three musicians. Smiles, nods and facial gestures indicated that the trio was not just three people playing instruments, but rather three becoming a single musical organism.
If Beethoven was “the program’s patriarch,” as Wu Han said in her program notes, Dohnanyi represented the break into modernism. In the middle, stylistically speaking, was Dvorak. The final piece on the program was his exquisite Quartet in E flat major, Opus 87. Composed in 1889, just 13 years before the Dohnanyi Serenade, it feels like it’s from a different world.
Dvorak is considered by some to be the last of the great Romanticists. The quartet, like all of his music, is rich in melody and emotion. Written shortly before the composer’s three years sojourn in the United States, it does not display the American influences that typify his later music. There is no doubt that his time here changed his compositions. He became, in a sense, the first American composer.
The piano quartet is a relatively long piece that features a lot of complex interaction among the instruments. Again, the joy is watching that interaction among these exceptional performers. Their passion for what they are doing is evident and infectious. They seem to become the music.
The musicians delighted the audience with a quirky encore, a song called “American Vision” by the Romanian violinist, Georges Boulanger. Under the apparent direction of violist Paul Neubauer, the piece featured surprising choreography and sound effects. The message: “We are having fun. We hope you are too!”
CMS will be back at Drew on Nov. 5 with music by Mozart, Brahms and Schoenberg.