|Taking the tour of Rome: Cohen, Albers and Murrath.|
Maybe there’s something to be said for a break. The second week of the festival opened with a burst of fresh energy, fueled by a few days off, an influx of new performers and bold programming that took listeners on some wild rides.
The centerpiece of Wednesday night’s concert was The Companion Guide to Rome, a 2010 work for string trio by American composer Andrew Norman. Just 33, Norman has already amassed a long list of awards and compositions noted for their spatial dimensions and architectural references. Those elements permeate Companion Guide, a collection of nine portraits of churches in the Eternal City filled with quick turns, sharp changes of mood and atmosphere, and touches of humor like the sudden intrusion of a car horn.
Though much of the music is abstract, it invokes very specific images and feelings. Late afternoon light dapples a high ceiling in the “Cecilia” movement. Whimsical note-bending and whirling turns in “Ivo” left this astonished critic feeling slightly dizzy, as if the twirling had been an actual physical experience. Norman’s ability to translate tactile sensations into music is remarkable, and was helped in this case by a fine performance from violinist Diana Cohen, violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist Julie Albers.
What to pair with a groundbreaking work like Companion Guide? The Cohens dug up a perfect opener, an obscure Biber piece titled Battalia à 10, which portrays a military skirmish in vivid and inventive terms. To re-create the sound of a marching drum, for example, bass player Scott Dixon inserted a page of the score between his strings and tapped them with his bow. With eyes closed, you couldn’t tell the difference. He and the other nine players gave a bright, animated rendering of the rest of the piece, led by first violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti.
Most of the ChamberFest programs closed on a traditional note, as in this evening’s Sextet for Two Violins, Two Violas and Two Cellos by Brahms. The instrumentation – essentially a trio doubled – opens up some interesting structural variations and tones. For listeners who prefer to sit back, close their eyes and be carried away, it’s also captivatingly beautiful. The ensemble played it with a sophisticated combination of expression and technique, topped by golden sounds from violinists Schwartz Moretti and Noah Bendix-Balgley.
Mixon Hall makes good music better with its superb acoustics, but Harkness Chapel does the opposite, diffusing the sound and adding a jangle around the edges. This robbed Friday night’s concert of some impact, though the playing was once again sharp and the program outstanding.
The high point was Ravel’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. Written in 1914, it is a brilliant work that makes heavy demands on both the players and audience, with increasingly intricate themes, overlapping time signatures and virtuoso coloring. A sensitive first movement featured flowing keyboard work by Matan Porat and deeply felt, melancholy strings from violinist Yehonatan Berick and cellist Julie Albers. Tight ensemble playing carried the rhythmic surges of the second movement, building to intense third and fourth movements marred a bit by a leaden quality in the lower piano registers. But the overall effect was lustrous, especially Albers’ lead cello lines.
The opening piece, Ginastera’s Pampeana No. 2, was also weighed down by the keyboard, though Porat and cellist Robert deMaine wound it up to a snappy close. Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Clarinet and Piano opened the second half, with clarinetist Franklin Cohen finding fresh nuances in the well-known melodies and Orion Weiss providing stylish accompaniment.
Messiaen’s Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano was elegantly played by pianist Porat and violinist Bendix-Blagley, though it never developed any legs, perhaps because this early work seems so conventional in light of the composer’s later achievements. And a foursome of Weiss, deMaine, violinist Diana Cohen and violist Dimiti Murrath provided a satisfying, comfortable finish with an unabashedly romantic rendering of Schumann’s Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello. Featuring particularly sweet sounds from Cohen, it was both intelligent and accessible, a spirited refresher on a muggy evening.
The same might be said of the entire Friday program, which alternated familiar anchors with bold, modern innovations. Acoustics notwithstanding, it was an invigorating excursion.
For more on The Companion Guide to Rome: http://andrewnormanmusic.com/archives/45
For more on Diana Cohen: http://chamberfestcleveland.com/portfolio/diana-cohen/
Photo by Gary Adams