Monday, December 2, 2013


Cleveland Institute of Music
November 22
Cleveland Museum of Art
November 24

Expressive players with a passion for their craft.

The holiday season brings an explosion of music, in the most literal sense of the word. Suddenly the concert halls and churches are bursting with seasonal sing-alongs, boisterous brass and other noisy Christmas fare. The audiences tend to be just as raucous, primed for family fun and lacking in concert etiquette.

Fortunately, there is an alternative for serious music fans. Chamber concerts attract smaller and smarter audiences, offering refined programming and an opportunity to see skilled musicians at work close-up. Even better for aficionados in Cleveland, many of the concerts are free.

The premier chamber event this month is the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Winter Chamber Music Festival (more in the sidebar at right), which kicked off in late November with a performance by the Cavani Quartet. All faculty members at CIM, the foursome bring an enthusiasm for their craft to their performances, playing with verve, intelligence and generosity of spirit.

The first of their two programs in the festival (the second is on Dec. 11) opened with Mozart’s String Quartet in A major (K. 464). Beethoven is said to have characterized the piece as Mozart’s way of saying to the world, “Look what I could produce, if only you were ready for it.” The quartet did not seem quite ready for it, playing with precision but none of the lilt that is integral to Mozart’s music. The form was there but not the substance, a beautiful shell with no core.

The mood and period shifted abruptly with the second piece, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2. It demands a sharper, energetic approach that nearly lifted first violinist Annie Fullard out of her seat at times. Slow to start, the three-movement work picked up drama and authority as it developed, though didn’t plumb the depths of grief that Fullard promised in her opening remarks.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor is a seminal work that changed the rules of chamber music, and the quartet was up to its technical challenges, slicing off impassioned pizzicato lines, weaving gauzy textures and putting a glimmering finish on the tender, fleeting melodies. As a technical showcase, it was a tour de force. The group showed its lighter side with the encore – “Midnight Child,” a contemporary piece written for the Cavani Quartet by pianist and composer Charles Gregory Washington.

We are in the Year of Italian Culture, which has brought a ton of opera and great musicians like Maurizio Pollini and Fabio Luisi to American audiences. For Clevelanders it offered a chance to hear pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi – again. He was the winner of the 1999 Cleveland International Piano Competition, has taught at Oberlin, and is currently a staff instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Cultural ambassador.
The Italian Consulate co-sponsored his recent recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where Pompa-Baldi presented the program that he played for the American Liszt Society in San Francisco in June. It was a bit short on Liszt – only three pieces, one a “paraphrase” of Verdi – and long on works dedicated to or inspired by Liszt: Chopin’s Twelve Etudes (Op. 10), and tributes by Russian composer Sergei Lyapunov and Italian composer Roberto Piana.

The variety gave Pompa-Baldi a chance to show his considerable technical prowess. He is a fluent player who blows through complicated passages with jaw-dropping dexterity – so fast at times that his skill squeezes his expression. The Chopin Etudes in particular were beautifully fluid, but played at such an uptempo clip that they lost their lyrical quality. When Pompa-Baldi slowed down a bit, as in Liszt’s Ballade #2 in B minor, the music sounded more sensitive and resonant.

The performance also had a spoken segment, with the pianist opening the second half by talking about the program, how he approaches the pieces, and what he hoped to convey with some of them. After what seemed like an effortless first half, it was interesting to hear him reveal the physical strains that some of the pieces impose, and the ideas behind others. His comments on the closing work, Piana’s Aprés une lecture de Liszt (After a reading of Liszt), were particularly helpful, as it contains some tongue-in-cheek humor that Pompa-Baldi explained and then executed nicely.

The concert was part of the Tri-C Classical Piano Recital Series, which returns to the museum in January. All the performances are free, as are all the concerts in CIM’s chamber music festival. For edifying winter warmers, one could hardly do better.

For more on the Cavani Quartet:

For more on Antonio Pompa-Baldi:

Cavani Quartet photo by Christian Steiner

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