Go Big or Go Home
by Michael Cameron
(reprinted from Ravinia Summer Program
A few decades ago, chamber music aficionados could count scarcely more than a dozen full-time string quartets, and a mere three or four American quartets dominated the recording market and touring circuit. While many symphony orchestras and opera companies have weathered financial setbacks and painful downsizing, the string quartet firmament has expanded, with new ensembles breaking out on a yearly basis.
The increased demand has been a godsend for the music world, but competition among emerging chamber ensembles has intensified. From their earliest days, the Calidore String Quartet recognized the need to hit pay dirt in short order in the international chamber music competitions that have proliferated in recent years. The awards came their way early and often, their concert schedule blossomed, and collaborations with some of the biggest names in the classical firmament have mushroomed.
Chicago area quartet enthusiasts have July 24th marked on their calendars for Calidore’s highly anticipated Ravinia debut with the Emerson Quartet, with music of Beethoven, Strauss, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn. I spoke to first violinist Ryan Meehan during the group’s June trip to the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Michigan. For Meehan, the Ravinia appearance will be particularly meaningful because of his deep roots in the Chicago area. He studied violin and received chamber music coaching with Roland and Almita Vamos, both legendary pedagogues whose former students include members of the Pacifica, Ying, and Miró Quartets.
“I grew up in Winnetka and attended the Music Institute, where the Pacifica Quartet used to give master classes. All four of them would stand behind us and channel so much energy. Their infectious intensity and passion made a big impression and gave every group a real jump start. When I was a junior in high school, Mrs. Vamos assigned me to a quartet that performed in all the competitions. Her son (Brandon) and daughter-in-law (Simin Ganatra) were members of the Pacifica Quartet, and they became important mentors to us.”
While the Ravinia performance will be their most prestigious area appearance to date, they performed at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music earlier this year. “The night before the concert we went over to the Vamos’ house and had a coaching, so I guess we’re still being mentored by them!”
The four musicians worked through the usual standard solo repertoire in their academic training, but over time they realized that quartet music held a special allure for them.
“(Violinist) Jeffrey Myers and I both attended the Aspen Music Festival for many summers. Every year the Takács Quartet would visit, and one particular year he heard them play an electrifying performance of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, a version of which I later heard on a recording. He decided then and there to strongly consider the string quartet as a career.”
Given the initial interaction between the two violinists, they could scarcely have imagined that fate would bring them together as artistic brethren. The two competed in a number of quartet competitions as opponents, and for a while didn’t speak to one other.
Eventually they met in friendlier circumstances at Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. Myers, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi were in the first iteration of Calidore that won the Grand Prize and Gold Medal in the 2011 Fischoff Competition. Meehan joined a few months later, and the foursome won seven more competitions in the next few years. “That first competition was the impetus for making the quartet the primary focus of our studies. It’s always been the mantra of our group to “Go Big, or Go Home”.
The quartet’s name is an amalgamation of “California” and “doré” (French for “golden”, as in “golden state”), an homage to their Los Angeles roots, the diversity of it’s culture, and the strong support it has received from from the area since it’s earliest days.
“The fact that there are so many quartets doing so well means that there is a lot of demand for chamber music”, continued Meehan. He believes that some of the fuel for this demand is economic, since orchestra concerts and operas are so costly to produce. If interest has surged recently, chamber music has long had a devote following, in cities big and small. “It’s always such a pleasure to talk with these people about their favorites pieces and recordings. It’s amazing how committed they are, more so than in any other genre. They’re quite sophisticated in their likes and dislikes.”
Another important catalyst in the proliferation of American string quartets in recent years is rising support from academia. Quartets-in-residence at conservatories and university schools of music were rare a half century ago, but now they provide a principal mode of employment for over a dozen quartets, lending financial stability for ensembles that perform most of their concerts on the road. As with so many other milestones in the rise of Calidore, the Emerson Quartet played a pivotal role connecting the young players with teaching opportunities.
“Our first contact with the Emerson Quartet was through David Finckel at the Aspen Festival”, according to Meehan. “Later, when we were still in LA, he encouraged us to play for him again. Soon after graduation from Colburn, we received a call from Stonybrook (Long Island) asking if we would assume a residency there. This kind of position is the dream of every young quartet, and it was largely on his recommendation that we were given the job. We worshipped the Emersons since we were young, both individually and collectively. It still seems surreal to have them now as mentors as friends.” At this point the quartet decided to re-locate to New York, a move that was soon rewarded with a three-year residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two program.
The accolades from competitions did more than simply beef up their resumes. The top prize in the 2012 ARD Munich International String Quartet Competition was not only an important career boost, but it gave them a chance to interact with rising European ensembles and led to coaching sessions with the Alban Berg Quartet.
“We really wanted a full spectrum of advice. We really hoped to bridge the divide between European and American styles of playing. I think it’s very important to have that kind of global perspective.”
Pressed on differences in music-making on either side of the Atlantic, he spoke of the generalizations about American musicians made by their European counterparts. “The perception is that Americans play with perfect intonation and big sound, but not with enough sensitivity in string color, and perhaps with not enough stylistic differentiation between works of different periods.”
The quartet considers it’s exposure to a variety of sources paramount to the development of it’s characteristic sound. “The Berg Quartet descended directly from the Viennese tradition, where a majority of the standard quartet repertoire emerged. They can literally trace their lineage back to Beethoven, which means that indirectly you’re getting instructions from Beethoven when you’re working on his quartets with them.”
The quartet’s repertoire is remarkably expansive considering their age, but they chose the well-trod music of Mendelssohn and Haydn for their first disc. “Mendelssohn’s Opus 13 quartet was the first piece that we ever sat down and played together and it carried us through many important moments in our career, including every competition we ever did, as well as our our Wigmore Hall debut. We were later attracted by the idea of doing the complete cycle. Like the Beethoven cycle, it spans his entire life, from the age of 18 to just a few months before he died. We’ve done all of his quartets twice now. It’s a lot of music, with a lot of notes, and it’s really helped our endurance!”
For their second disc, the players shifted gears and assembled a program around the theme of World War I, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of a war that had profound implications for many composers of the era. “Serenade: Music from the Great War”, was an offshoot of a performance of music by Hindemith and the little known Jacques de la Presle they presented at Verdun in northeastern France, the sight of one of the deadliest battles in history.
The group is not waiting until it masters the entire quartet canon before connecting with living composers. They have forged an especially strong bond with Caroline Shaw, who in 2013 became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize. Cellist Estelle Choi knew Shaw well from their time together at Yale when they were assigned to the same quartet. Choi thought of her at that time only as a violinist, and was surprised to hear that Shaw would be moving on to Princeton to pursue a PhD in composition. Close collaboration soon followed, with multiple performances of Shaw’s “Enr’acte" and the world premier this past November of her “First Essay”.
As for their joint concert at Ravinia with the Emerson Quartet, Meehan could barely contain his excitement. “The idea for the performance came from the Emersons, and it should be exciting to hear two quartets at such different stages of their career. The level of energy will be overwhelming. What you feel on stage is even much more intense than what you’ll sense in the audience.”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Vadim Repin, violin
by Michael Cameron
Conductor Susanna Mälkki’s many appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in recent years have received considerable kudos from critics and audiences alike, although the skimpy attendance for the first of her two appearances Thursday at Ravinia suggests that some of the CSO faithful are still keeping their distance.
In a neat bit of programming symmetry and a nod to her Finnish roots, the orchestra has programmed music of Sibelius and Beethoven, with one concerto and one symphony by each on successive nights. Vadim Radim was the violin soloist in the Sibelius concerto, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) filled out the program. The orchestra under Mälkki’s firm hand was in top form, even with many principals taking the night off.
Mälkki and Repin were a good musical match, their relatively literalist viewpoints making for a nearly seamless partnership. Both are known for stripping decades of accumulated performance traditions from standard repertoire and looking at scores with fresh eyes. Repin has a deservedly loyal fan base among violin connoisseurs, and has many memorable Chicago area appearances under his belt. Sadly, this performance found him considerably off his game.
Given Mälkki’s precise gestures and keen ear for textural details, it’s safe to assume the hushed orchestral tuttis at the opening and elsewhere in the first movement were lovingly rendered. Assume we must, since Ravinia’s full throated cricket chorus utterly subsumed the orchestra’s quiet passages early in the concerto. Repin attempted an understated opening, a sensible strategy given the fights of soaring lyricism and highflying pyrotechnics that saturate much of the concerto. But his thin sound, shaky intonation, and patchy vibrato in these introductory bars foreshadowed problems to come, most notably in Sibelius’ many extended passages on the bottom G string of the violin.
Mälkki’s supportive accompanying gave the violinist room to explore every conceivable dynamic, but her vibrant tuttis were often more compelling than Repin’s solo flights. He seems to view the 1905 work as a lean 20th century masterpiece rather than a lush, 19th century romantic throwback. It’s a legitimate view, but one that failed to convince.
Repin was able to better connect with the score in some critical sections, in particular the extended first movement cadenza. He rightly presented it as vehicle for continued musical development rather than a platform for shallow showmanship. Intelligent details abounded, included some deftly voiced double stops and shrewdly molded dynamic gradations. But the fiendishly difficult final tutti was muddled, owing perhaps to a slight disagreement in tempo between soloist and conductor.
The middle movement fared somewhat better, with the soloist spinning soulful lyricism with graduated levels of intensity as a set-up for Sibelius’ ecstatic final climax. But one longed for the occasional indulgence or sense of spontaneity (genuine or otherwise) that characterize the most memorable readings.
By the finale, Repin seemed to have found his footing, and from time to time even allowed himself to inject personal touches that lent whimsy to a movement musicologist Donald Tovey described as a “polonaise for polar bears”. Mälkki seemed comfortably in her element with the music of her compatriot, and no doubt her reading of his second symphony tonight will confirm her bona fides.
It is unreasonable and perhaps unwise to expect anything novel in a reading of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, but Mälkki’s take on the warhorse was consistently fresh and occasionally illuminating. Her tempos were on the fleet side of standard, but never ostentatiously so. The first movement was the most conventional of the four, with only the slightest deviations of the primary tempo allowed for structural clarity. The second movement funeral march inspired more flexibility from her baton, as each new variation was announced with pullbacks that were smartly assorted based on relative harmonic tension and shifts in orchestration.
The scherzo was allowed to take flight of its own accord, and the CSO’s horn trio responded with rustic, full throated abandon. Most impressive was her account of the finale, a reading brimming with characterful contrast. Again tempos were on the quick side, but Beethoven’s startling mood swings were a given a full, expansive platform. The wind principals were splendid throughout, most notably Keith Buncke (bassoon), John Bruce Yeh (clarinet), and Michael Henoch (oboe).
The CSO and Mälkki will perform more music of Sibelius and Beethoven Friday with pianist Kirill Gerstein.
Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Evanston
Dr. Allan Dennis, conductor
Lyudmila Lakisova, piano
Irina Lupines, piano
The final spring concert in the Midwest Young Artist Conservatory’s Symphony Orchestra schedule is always an emotional affair, with tearful farewells from director Allan Dennis to graduating seniors who are preparing to leave their nests in a few shorts months to pursue higher education. The goodbyes add an extra layer of emotion to the events, and the performances themselves tend to unfold with a heightened level of intensity. Sunday’s concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston was no exception to this pattern, and with a particularly demanding program that required extra rehearsals and a deeper level of commitment, there was even more on the line than usual.
The technical and musical complexities (not to mention endurance) of Mahler symphonies might make them seem a fool’s errand for youth orchestras. an assumption particularly apt for the Fifth Symphony, a work of almost unparalleled complexity in the symphonic canon. The composer explores any number of opposing dramatic forces: unbearable tragedy and soothing bliss, passive desperation and frenzied mania, agonizing torment and serene contentment. Just getting the notes and rhythms in place is a herculean task, but navigating the emotional terrain of this behemoth with convincing authenticity is an even more daunting burden. But Dr. Dennis and his young musicians proved up to the task, delivering a compelling and often urgent reading that had proud parents and friends at the edge of their seats for the symphony’s hour-plus duration.
Mahler completed his Fifth Symphony in 1902, and it received its first public performance under the composers direction in Cologne in 1904. His three previous efforts included vocal forces, but here and in the next two symphonies the composer returned to the more traditional purely instrumental form. And yet there is little else conventional about this monumental work, a mammoth creation in three parts further subdivided into five movements.
The first movement unfolds in the form of a funeral march, with a lone trumpet call derived from a climax in his Fourth Symphony. The principal trumpet part is among the most taxing in the repertoire, but Hannah Nussbaum and Emily Rebstock, splitting the part between them, were up to the arduous task. The first lyrical theme was beautifully shaped by the strings, and the low brass added the requisite somber touch. Tuba player Lily Sefchick in particular played her mournful passages with precision and projection. In the burst of anguish that marks the defiant trio, Dennis coaxed a tormented outburst from his young forces, capped off with a ringing chorus from his splendid horn section.
Built on material from the crazed first trio from the funeral march, the second movement erupted with an appropriately angry outburst from the outstanding lower strings. The cello section gave a lush reading of a new lyrical theme, leading to the reappearance of the gruff opening measures. One of the highlights of the symphony is the magnificent brass choral near the end, and Dennis’ forces gave a spine-tingling rendering. The sense of triumph in the score is short-lived however, and Dennis brought the movement back down to earth with a precisely calculated deflation.
The third movement begins innocently enough, with a rollicking horn tune (neatly played by the MYA section), but Mahler correctly foresaw that it would cause interpretive problems for orchestras of the future (“The scherzo is the very devil of a movement”, he declared). Whatever the complexities and unexpected twists and turns (and they are many), it is ultimately an effervescent dance of life, and the orchestra brought a sense of ebullience to the the score that perhaps only young players can muster. Principal horn player Chris Martin handled his prominent part with consummate professionalism.
The celebrated fourth movement Adagietto for strings and harp remains the symphony’s best known movement (and perhaps most famous in all of Mahler’s oevre, thanks to it’s inclusion in director Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and as the inspiration for numerous ballets). It is also the subject of arguably the most controversial tempo debate in all of classical music. Some conductors have interpreted the piece as a melancholy elegy, a role boosted by its use in many musical memorial events. Yet the composer was quite clear that the movement was inspired by his burgeoning love for Alma Schindler, who was to become his wife shortly after the symphony’s completion. Dr. Dennis rightly viewed the movement as a love song, teasing out the central lyrical core and drawing sumptuous playing from his string sections. Harpist Krista Hagglund added an atmospheric haze to the unfolding love song.
The cheery, rustic opening of the finale was marked by superb solo work from Martin, clarinetist Alex Abreu and oboe player Gwen Goodman. The string fugue was a marvelous bustle of activity, sprightly paced and crisp in execution. The same glorious brass chorus that dissolved into defeat in the third movement ended here in grand, heroic victory. “Heroic” is also the best adjective to describe the herculean effort than brought this performance, and the entire MYA season, to such a glorious close.
MYA’s Symphony Orchestra doesn’t often feature guest artists, but those occasions tend to be memorable ones. Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos in A flat minor, Op. 88a, is hardly a staple, but Sunday’s performance by Lyudmila Lakisova and Irina Lupines made a case for the occasional hearing. The key of A flat minor is odd, to say the least, and the back story of it’s origins are strangely convoluted. It was conceived for the American piano duo Rose and Ottilie Sutro, yet the two never performed Bruch’s original score. They did manage just two performances of heavily revised versions with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, one of which reduced the original from four movements to three. The concerto lay undisturbed among the sisters’ papers until 1971, at which point the score was rediscovered and received a belated premier in 1973.
Lakisova (esteemed local pianist and chamber music coach at MYA) and Lupines (famed collaborative pianist and instructor at the Eastman School of Music) gave a performance that was utterly compelling and singular idiomatic, not an easy feat given the uneven quality of the work itself. Bruch borrowed from many sources for the composition, original and external, and the concerto doesn’t hold together nearly as well as other double piano concertos. But the duo managed to convey enough dramatic angst, urgency, and lithe lyricism to keep the audience in their grasp.
Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra
Dr. Allan Dennis, conductor
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
February 19, 2017
by Michael Cameron
Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston, the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra once again delivered the goods with a compelling program of fiercely challenging repertoire, while giving a richly deserved platform to pair of exciting young virtuosos.
With Dr. Allan Dennis on the podium, the orchestra’s captivating performance of Stravinsky’s ballet-burlesque Petrouchka defied expectations of what is possible with a student ensemble. The orchestra had earlier tackled the other two revolutionary Stravinsky ballets (Firebird and The Rite of Spring), so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that they could deliver a confident performance of music of such difficulty, sophistication, and concentration.
Stravinsky had already begun preliminary work on the The Rite of Spring when discussions with ballet impresario Diaghilev sent him in another direction, to a story of a straw and sawdust-stuffed puppet suddenly come to life. The character of Petroushka was described by the composer as “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries”, and his depiction of the adventures of the title character remains a favorite among dance troupes the world over.
For their previous concert, Dr. Dennis delivered on a richly hued, detailed performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, a sprawling work that is famously taxing of string sections. The challenges in Petrouchka come from other sources, including complex tempo changes, odd metric structures, and an abundance of virtuosic passages for woodwinds, brass, and percussion. This work tests the adage that a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link, and time and again the players rose to the occasion with characterful solo turns and tightly rehearsed section playing. Dr. Dennis deftly guided the students through Stravinsky’s maze of odd meters and quicksilver tempo changes. Balances were carefully gauged, and the characters and situations of the timeless story came to life in a vivid procession of tableaus.
Throughout the ballet, the woodwinds were uniformly superb in both solo and ensemble passages, beginning with flutist Jonathan Wu’s agile fanfares in the festive opening sequence, with principal violist Peter Dudek leading his section in swirling accompanying figures. First stand players Hannah Nussbaum (trumpet) Ruchira Ray (clarinet), Timothy Zhang (oboe), and Sara Mouscher (piccolo) provided just a few of the many highlights in the ballet’s first part.
Percussion sections are often the unsung heroes in 20th century repertoire, but Stravinsky’s brilliant orchestration (snare drum scene connections, abrupt timpani interruptions, etc.) often puts these back row workhorses through their paces. Brass section playing excelled throughout, propelled by the strong leadership of Nussbaum, Christopher Martin (horn), and Eleanor Lerrick (tuba). Concertmaster Anna Stenzel's ostinato passages in the Russian Dance were taut and lively, while the grumblings of the bassoon and contrabassoon lines at the appearance of the Charlatan were played with relish by Sarah Gibes and Nick Nocita.
The program also included vital performances by two winners of the 2016 Walgreens Competition. The overall winner in piano in the MYAC Senior Division was George Dalianis, a 10th grader from Maine South High School in Park Ridge. Dalianis choose an evergreen warhorse for his appearance, the first movement of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Countless recorded and live performances of this beloved work linger the memory, but his youthful vigor and formidable technical command left a strong impression. The pianist exhibited a firm hand in the rapid octave passages, and he coaxed a spontaneous lyricism in shaping the concert’s famous tunes.
The Brahms Violin Concerto is not a common choice for entrants in youth competitions, owing perhaps to the length and intensity of the opening movement and the belief among many that any reasonably probing account could only flow from the hands of an artist with at least a few years of professional experience. But Karisa Chiu is no ordinary young violinist, and her reading of the monumental concerto was persuasive from start to finish. The senior from Palatine was the String Category Winner in the Open Senior division in the competition, and it was clear from the opening bravura passages that she had paid enough dues to earn her appearance with the MYAC Orchestra. Her attention to every musical and technical detail was uncanny, yet she never wavered in her commitment to conveying the overarching structure.
Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra
Dr. Allan Dennis, conductor
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
October 16, 2016
by Michael Cameron
Considering the disastrous reception that greeted his first symphony in 1897 under the baton of Alexander Glasunov in St. Petersberg., it’s a wonder that Serge Rachmaninoff was able to summon the courage to try his hand in the genre a second time. The first experience sent him reeling into a three year tailspin of chronic depression, a condition ameliorated only after months of therapy, hypnosis, and eventually a temporary relocation to Dresden.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 is nothing if not sprawling, even long-winded. The success of the premier and the composer’s subsequent readings of it were undercut by doubts among other conductors about it’s near hour length. For decades after it’s premier in 1908, performances were often cut, sometimes mercilessly so. These attempts at editing flourished in part because the composer himself seemed not especially committed to publicly defending its honor.
In recent years the original score has gained traction among Rachmaninoff’s more fervid champions, and it was this unabridged version that Allan Dennis and his Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra brought to Pick-Staiger Concert Hall Sunday night. There are other flashier, more overtly virtuosic orchestral works in the canon, many of them tackled by the MYA orchestra on previous occasion. But few of them test stamina and tax string sections more than Rachmaninoff's formidable 2nd.
Dennis began his reading with an ominous incantation from the lower strings, a “motto” theme that appears as a fragment of the main idea, setting up the fuller treatment by the violins later in the introduction. The upper strings reached a resplendent climax before English horn player Annika McDermott-Hinman intoned a mournful phrase, leading directly to the allegro proper.
As the longest movement of the symphony, the first poses a particular challenge for interpreters. Dennis and his forces paid particular attention to structural signposts, many of which are fortunately marked by the introduction and re-statements of some the composer’s most memorable melodies. String tone and technique was uniformly superb throughout, and concertmaster Anna Stenzel contributed a beautifully molded solo passage, providing an echo of the movement’s introduction. Rarely, if ever, have I heard the MYA strings play with such polish and commitment.
While this is undoubtedly a string centric symphony, the brass and percussion added heft to the first movement climax just before the return to the opening tunes. Credit principal trombonist Reid Harman and trumpeter Hannah for leading the charge. Principal clarinetist Alex Abreu also excelled on numerous solo flights.
Rachmaninoff is not as esteemed as some of his Russian counterparts as an innovative orchestrator, but the bubbling scherzo show flashes of brilliant orchestral colors. The opening flickers of light from the violins (with brittle open e strings) and horns served as a launch pad for a taut reading of the scherzo. In an unusual feature for this form, the composer inserts a lush and lyrical interlude, and once again the upper strings rose to the occasion. Sonorous trumpet, horn, and lower brass choruses announced the final bars, a nimble fadeout that softened to a whisper.
In a broad-boned symphony such as this, it isn’t surprising that new ideas are employed to announce extended introductions and transitions. Yet the sublime Adagio seems to emerge from nowhere, and Dennis played up this feature with hushed opening notes that quickly surged into a full-throated statement of one of classical music’s most enduing melodies. It’s a tune that can easily morph into overwrought Hollywood schmaltz, but Dennis let the impossibly long-winded tunes emerge organically. The clarinet solo is one of the most prized possessions in the instrument’s repertoire, and Abreu was easily up to the task, spinning the captivating tune with great attention lavished on it’s natural shape, a feat made possible with remarkable breath control.
The fourth movement opens with a march-like episode in the home key of E (but this time in a triumphant major mode) with MYA’s fine trumpets, horns, and percussion providing much of the heavy lifting. The return of the principal melody of the slow movement by the violins came wistfully bathed in a mist of nostalgia, decorated with beautiful roulades by principal flutist Jonathan Wo.
The final bar hits the listener with a rhythmic figure common to many of Rachmaninoff’s bigger orchestral works, and not only was this gesture delivered with a satisfying snap, audience adrenalin was boosted by a jubilant shout from the podium. It was hard to believe that nearly an hour had passed since the opening bars, so enthralling was the performance and so keen was the attention given its forward sweep. A memorable performance indeed, and in sheer vigor and commitment comparable to that of many a professional orchestra.
Orion Ensemble - Chicago Classical Review