Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Transformer Station
June 21

Synergy in a high-powered industrial space. 

A good festival breaks new ground even as it builds a core audience around familiar programming. A great festival takes listeners places they’ve never been – musically and, in the case of Cleveland, to the West Side.

Though a confirmed cosmopolite, this critic had not been to the Transformer Station in Ohio City before the Friday night ChamberFest concert. The building proved to be as interesting as the music. A one-time electrical substation that powered the Detroit Ave. streetcar line, it is a solid and attractive piece of industrial architecture built in 1924. Owners Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell preserved and refurbished all the best elements, including an eye-popping ceiling crane capable of lifting 15 tons, and grafted on a clean, modern addition that mirrors the 1971 Marcel Breuer addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Transformer Station now houses the Bidwells collection of modern art, and will be mounting exhibitions in conjunction with CMA.

The concert took place in the expansion, where the sound was surprisingly good. Actually, it was amazingly good, to the point where commentator Patrick Castillo declared it one of the best chamber music venues he’s ever heard. That may say more about Castillo than the facility, which supports a warm and full though not very crisp sound, with powerful resonance in the lower registers. An array of portable sound baffles helped. Still, there’s no question that along with a fine new gallery, the Bidwells have created a promising performance space.

I will encourage ChamberFest to put us on their calendar next year,” Fred Bidwell says. “I thought the program and the performances were terrific, particularly the more contemporary pieces, which seemed to be really well-suited to the space.”

Did the Friday concert really need to open with a repeat of Mozart’s Quintet from the previous night? From a planning standpoint, probably. Musically, it wasn’t much of an improvement, once again technically flawless but emotionally bloodless. The tight quarters gave the piece a little more life, but could not instill passion and urgency.

The star of the evening was violinist/violist Yura Lee, whose feet barely touch the ground when she is sitting on a piano bench. But she is a giant as a performer, with sharp technical skills and an absolutely fearless attitude, attacking pieces head-on and plumbing them for expressive depth. Her version of Schnittke’s A Paganini was strikingly mature in both sound and style, with virtuoso control in the closing fadeout. The tone of her highest notes was so pure, they could have been produced by a theremin.

This is one of the most neurotic things you’ve ever heard” Castillo said by way of introducing Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1. That’s one way to describe it. Another would be as one of the most groundbreaking chamber works of the 20th century, written in the composer’s unique and highly influential musical language. Cleveland’s Omer Quartet gave an impressive reading of the piece last month to conclude the Cleveland Chamber Music Society’s 2012-13 season, then took it to South Bend, where they won the Grand Prize in the Fischoff Competition.

Again, the virtues of a standing ensemble over an ad hoc assemblage came to the fore. The players – violinists David McCarroll and Ying Fu, violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist Gabriel Cabezas – were smart and skilled, and handled the work’s technical challenges with aplomb. But the fine edges, shifting tempos and emotional integrity of the piece came up short. To be fair, this is a difficult work for even experienced quartets to realize properly, and the organizers deserve credit for putting it on the program.

The concert concluded with a Handel Passacaglia arranged for strings by Johan Halverson. Lee and Murrath hit it at a fast clip and never let up, showing blazing technique and developing some interesting tones and contrasts in the work’s short duration. It’s an unusual choice for a concert closer, but the performance brought the audience to their feet, eliciting cheeky whistling and yelling along with enthusiastic applause.

Great music in a stimulating setting will do that.

For more on the Transformer Station: http://www.transformerstation.org/

Photo by Gary Adams

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