|The family that plays together: Diana, Alex and Franklin.|
Chamber music concerts tend to be cerebral affairs, with smaller ensembles and venues giving listeners an opportunity to focus on the intricacies of complex music. ChamberFest Cleveland has that part right. But as the opening concert demonstrated, this festival comes from the heart.
The opening piece set the tone: Start-time, a new work by Matan Porat written expressly for the festival’s founders and directors, Franklin Cohen and his daughter Diana. Joined by brother Alexander on timpani, they premiered what is likely the first modern piece composed for clarinet, violin and timpani – an odd combination, to say the least. But the Cohens made it work with a finely calibrated interplay of the three instruments that gradually rose in volume and intensity to the fevered pitch of a tribal dance.
Cohen Sr. could not have been prouder in noting that it was the first time he and his children had performed together. And the piece could not have been more appropriate, a fresh blast of harmonics and propulsive rhythms played in a celebratory spirit.
An ad hoc ensemble of string players followed with a more conventional repertoire work, Mozart’s Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello in G minor (K. 516). In any other context, the piece would hardly seem conventional. It’s a late work filled with uncharacteristic dark tones and emotional anguish, with the G minor key setting a somber, melancholy mood. And the combination of instruments was still considered experimental at the time Mozart composed the piece in the spring of 1787, when his personal fortunes were at a low ebb and falling.
All of which helps to explain why the Quintet sounded so flat. The group – violinists David McCarroll and Diana Cohen, violists Yura Lee and Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Julie Albers – gave it a professional reading and played with intelligence and sensitivity. But there was little of the internal logic that characterizes high-caliber Mozart, and only hints of emotional depth. It may be unrealistic to expect more from a group of musicians who don’t normally play together, no matter how skilled they are individually. Still, the energy and passion that finally emerged late in the final movement suggested that the ensemble was capable of more.
By contrast, the final piece was superb. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a work of breathtaking beauty and demanding virtuosity, which made it ideal for the senior Cohen, who has been the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist for nearly 40 years. The level of playing and interpretation went up several notches with him leading a group that included violist Lee, cellist Gabriel Cabezas and pianist Orion Weiss. The opening “Liturgy” movement was sharp and smart, and Weiss displayed impressive range in the “Vocalise,” segueing smoothly from controlled banging to soft cascades.
Cohen showed perfect control of his instrument in the “Abyss of the Birds,” adding some flourishes to the sound with swipes of his clarinet. Cabezas struck a compelling tone and drew some clever effects from his instrument for the following “Praise” movement, setting up an outstanding “Dance of Fury” – vibrant and clean, played with an integrity and rhythm that gave it a jazzy feel. The concluding “Angel” and “Immortality of Jesus” movements were less impressive, but only by comparison. The entire piece was so riveting that there was an audible exhale when it ended, one of those rare moments when the entire audience has been transfixed.
The only sour note of the night came in a short program that preceded the concert. “This is an unusual way to start,” Diana Cohen acknowledged in introducing Cabezas and Weiss for a two-piece recital designed to showcase the cellist. He is a young player of considerable talent who did not seem very comfortable with delicate works by Janáček and Debussy. And the placement of the recital was puzzling. Supporting young artists is an admirable goal, but not to open a festival. Caberzas needs some seasoning and the schedule needs refining.
Meanwhile, Mixon Hall continues to surprise and delight. At a certain point as twilight set in, there was a mirror image of the performers in the double glass wall behind the stage, as if an ethereal second group was performing in the garden. The effect was dreamlike, adding a magical moment to an already enchanting evening.
For more on Franklin Cohen: http://chamberfestcleveland.com/portfolio/franklin-cohen/
For more on Matan Porat: http://chamberfestcleveland.com/portfolio/matan-porat/
Photo by Gary Adams