(reprinted from Chicago Classical Review)
The Winter Chamber Music Festival in Evanston has justly earned kudos for curating interesting programs deftly executed by a mix of local and visiting performers. This year they scored something of a coup with the debuts of two promising young string quartets. The Dudok Kwartek Amsterdam made an impressive showing Friday in their first American appearance, and Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University the Rolston String Quartet paid their first visit to the Chicago area.
The Canadian foursome seem to be following a parallel career path with the Dover Quartet. The Bienen School of Music’s Quartet-in-Residence (slated for their own appearance at the festival January 26) rose to prominence with a victory at the 2013 Banff Competition, and the Rolston Quartet nabbed the same prize in 2016. For their concerts at this festival, all three ensembles chose program openers from Mozart’s set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, the first master of the idiom.
From the opening bars of the first movement of the A major quartet, K. 464, the ensemble demonstrated near flawless technical precision, with clean, cushioned articulations and unfailing unanimity of expression. Reading from matching iPads, they took pains to emphasize elegance and refinement above all other virtues, a strategy that mostly succeeded in the opening Allegro. Vibrato was applied judiciously, and was occasionally avoided entirely, most notably in Mozart’s mildly dissonant suspensions.
The Minuet unfolded with care lavished on the composer’s asymmetric phrase structures, and subtle rubato gently illuminated each melodic fragment. But the reading underlined elegance at the expense of other attributes, including the composer’s occasional flashes of dark humor and the dance lineage of the idiom.
First violinist Luri Lee’s sweet-toned reading of the theme of the third movement held a winning charm, but some of the following variations worked better than others. The minor key variation was wanting in dramatic intensity, and the signature “drum” variant initiated by cellist Jonathan Lo lacked percussive bite. The finale was better, the quartet’s unwavering transparency working wonders on Mozart’s ingenious counterpoint.
Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 was similarly exacting in execution, and filled with expressive touches that reflected the young players’ intellectual engagement with the romantic warhorse. The shimmering opening chords of the first movement bloomed with an organ-like sonority, and the final accelerando worked up a bracing head of steam. A highlight was the famous second movement Andante cantabile, spun as an intimate, lyrical lullaby.
The quartet dug deep for a more extroverted Scherzo, but fell short of the kind of abandon that the best performances of the movement feature. Their aura of invincibility dimmed a bit with some shaky violin octaves in the finale, but the coda was vivid and hot-blooded.
With 12 string quartets to his credit, few Canadian composers have devoted themselves to the idiom with such consistency as R. Murray Schafer. The Rolston Quartet has little contemporary music in its repertoire to date, but they could do worse than turn their attention to the works of their esteemed compatriot.
His String Quartet No. 2 (“Waves”) from 1976 is a 17-minute sonic depiction of sea water, constructed in a succession of bars lasting between 6 and 11 seconds, the temporal distance between successive crests of waves. The language is pervasively atonal, with a heavy emphasis on brief motives that are continuously repeated and varied. There are suggestions of the string writing of Berg, Bartók, and Ligeti, but the language is very much Schafer’s own.
The young players made for ardent champions of the piece, placing the dazzling colors and modulating tempos in high relief. There was a bit of theater involved, with a spotlight on the players and dimmed lighting in the hall (inexplicably retained in the Tchaikovsky).
In the final minutes Lee, second violinist Jeffrey Dyrda and violist Hezekiah Leung slowly walked off the stage one-by-one, a la Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, playing motives that eventually settled back stage into a unison doldrum. The cellist was left alone, with solitary whistles intoned with mournful bowed utterances. On paper this may appear gimmicky, but the imaginative scoring and the Rolston’s committed advocacy were a winning combination.
The Winter Chamber Music Festival resumes Friday with a 7:30 performance at Pick-Staiger Hall featuring works by Tartini, Bartok, and Stravinsky.
Midwest Young Artists Conservatory - Symphony Center
A quarter century ago, conductor/educator/double bassist Dr. Allan Dennis had a dream. With many years of experience under his belt educating young musicians in the Chicago area, he found a deficit of opportunities for ensemble training for the best and brightest talent. There had long been an ample supply of bright and eager students, supportive parents, and exceptional artist teachers plying their craft. Musicians spend endless hours in solitary pursuit of artistic excellence, but ultimately the art of music comes alive primarily as a collaborative art, and an enthusiastic audience of supporters is critical in the pursuit of excellence.
Out of the this dream was born Midwest Young Artists Conservatory. Dennis quickly secured a physical home among the century old, stately buildings of Fort Sheridan in the northern suburbs of Chicago. With years of accumulated contacts among area music educators and professionals, Dennis was able to offer parents and students a comprehensive collection of ensembles, from the MYA Symphony Orchestra under his baton, to chamber ensembles, choral groups, and jazz combos.
The fruits of these endeavors are manifest in many ways. Dozens of these students have gone on to established careers as world class performers, many with positions in symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles, and countless other performing institutions. Others, inspired by the first class artistic guidance from their years at MYA, have themselves become educators at every level from K through 12 to higher education. Still more have chosen careers in other professions, but even these students continue to make music a central part of their lives, and usually pass on their love of the musical arts to their children. The virtuous cycle spins on.
Many of these alumni and more gathered Friday night for a truly extraordinary event: the 25th anniversary season Celebration and Alumni Concert at Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s loop. Not only did hundreds of performers congregate on the hollowed home stage of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but numerous current and former ensemble directors lead choruses, jazz ensembles, and a truly massive symphony orchestra.
Conductor Stevi Marks opened the festivities with an appropriately wistful rendition of folk singer Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle. No doubt fond memories came flooding through the minds of MYA’s loyal supporters in attendance. Next the chorus evoked the holiday season with New Dance for the Sugar Plum Fairy, an adaptation of the Tchaikovsky standard by Amy Engelhardt, complete with swinging rhythms and finger pops. Their final number, the Styne/Comdon/Green standard Make Someone Happy could stand in as MYA’s mantra.
Quentin Coaxum has injected a shot of adrenalin into MYA’s jazz program since taking the helm this past year, but the inclusion of former directors Chris Madsen and Nic Meyer was a reminder of the stellar heritage of jazz studies at the school. Tchaikovsky’s seminal ballet was again an inspiration, this time for Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Overture. The tune works well in swung time, and the students had great fun with the transformation. The triple time With Gratitude composed and directed by Chris Madsen was also an apt expression of students and parents. But for all of the reminders of happy memories, Mercer Ellington’s Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (lead by all three directors) was an exhortation that the best years lie ahead.
I can’t be certain that a record was set, but I can’t imagine that a larger symphony orchestra has ever graced Orchestra Hall in the 115 years since legendary architect Daniel Burnham built the landmark performance venue. Well over 200 current students and alumni performed in the short program, and space was so tight that the brass sections performed from the choral balcony at the rear of the main stage.
A cheerful, vivid reading of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide opened the program, conductor Allan Dennis wisely choosing a moderate tempo that allowed the massive ensemble to cohere. The woodwind sections were in find form, lending the score an infectious effervescence. There are few more rousing symbols of celebratory triumphalism than the finale of Beethoven’s mighty 5th Symphony, and the young brass players brought it home in grand, ringing fashion.
On the other end of the musical spectrum, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is one of the most beloved slow movements in the symphonic repertoire. Dennis led his string players in a glowing rendition, tenderly lyrical and punctuated with a pair of searing climaxes. Excerpts from Daphnis and Cholé (Suite No. 2) demonstrated fleet virtuosity from every section, and a bold, virile account of Brahm’s Academic Festival Overture closed the program in rousing fashion. There was a palpable sense of pride and accomplishment among musicians and supporters for this quarter century of extraordinary achievement, and a sense of hope that the coming years will find the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory an ever more vital part of the community.