by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted the fourth in its series of “Five Fridays” chamber music recitals Friday, March 4. The featured ensemble was the Dover String Quartet, and the program was one of the most compelling I’ve ever heard in four decades of reviewing classical music performances.
The Dover Quartet (the first-ever “Quartet-in-Residence” at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music) is comprised of violinists Joel Link & Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw. Their concert was titled “Beauty from the Ashes,” Experiences of World War II. They played three string quartets by three different composers written between the years 1943 and 1945.
Two — Victor Ullman and Simon Laks — had direct links with Auschwitz, the notorious death camp the Germans ran in Poland in which hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jewish, were brutally murdered during the 1940s. Its only rival for butchery was Dachau, in Germany. Ullman was forced by the camp’s commanders (and those of the previous camp where he had been interred) to compose music to be performed by the other inmates. Laks was the conductor of Auschwitz’s orchestra.
Ullman died in 1944 at Auschwitz within a year of his writing his “Quartet No. 3;” Laks was freed upon the camp’s liberation and lived on until 1983, a stalwart witness to inconceivable evil. His “Quartet No. 3,” composed in 1945, was the first score he wrote after his rescue by Allied troops that year.
The recital’s third piece was the “Quartet No. 2” by Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian master who not only survived the Germans’ assault on the Soviet Union during World War II but also the savagery of Josef Stalin, the Communist dictator who killed more of his own countrymen than the 20 million who died at the hands of the Nazi invaders.
Shostakovich had come under fire from Stalin and his lackeys for writing music they considered “corrupted by bourgeois tendencies.” He survived by composing symphonies in which his protests were cleverly hidden. He revealed his true feelings of unfathomable sadness in chamber music the authorities always ignored.
Divided into two substantial movements, Ullman’s “Third String Quartet” is an incredibly dense work of music in which clashing dissonances leave the listener with an unabated rush of all-consuming resignation. Laks’ opus is more balanced in mood, setting moments of wistful nostalgia against others of devastating melancholy. The score abounds in tonal references to Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bartok and Kodaly, yet it maintains its own distinctive voice throughout its four movements.
In all three scores, the members of the Dover Quartet immersed themselves in the searing intensity of the music, delving into its darkest secrets and then revealing and projecting them to an audience that filled the space in the back of the church at the labyrinth. The playing was characterized by dazzling technical command and interpretive passion.
The final “Five Fridays” recital is set for April 22, 7:30 p.m., and will feature Project Fusion, the saxophone quartet. Visit www.fivefridays.org for more information.
TEMPESTA DI MARE
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill was the site of one of the most entertaining concerts of the season Sunday, March 6. Heard within the peerless acoustics of its sanctuary, Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, performed “The Nations: Orchestral Portraits of the Peoples of Europe” to a virtual full house.
The program featured Telemann’s “Folk Suite” in B-flat, selections from Locke’s Music for Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest,” Zelenka’s “Orchestral Suite in F,” Barsanti’s “Overture in D,” and selections from Roman’s “Music for Drottingholm Palace,” the Swedish royal residence.
The hallmarks of the performances given all five scores was the breadth and depth of the playing. The full ensemble brought an amplitude of sound to every moment, yet never was the tone unvaried or unarticulated. The unified impact of the totality of the orchestral sound was often as full-bodied and full-throttled as that of any chamber orchestra playing on modern instruments.
Telemann’s mastery of character delineation was given its due while Locke’s early baroque spontaneity was made concise and focused. Zelenka’s virtuoso writing was meticulously projected, while the shimmering beauty of Barsanti’s string writing was eloquently phrased.
Astral Artists pianist Sejoon Park will perform a solo recital Saturday, March 12, 5 p.m., in Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum. His program includes Bach’s Chorale Prelude: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Ravel’s “Miroirs,” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
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