by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted the second of this season’s “Five Fridays: Concerts for Community” Nov. 17. The series of chamber music recitals raises money for two local charitable organizations, Face to Face Germantown and the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Both strive to support those in need of a clean and safe place to live and to re-integrate individuals hard on their luck back into the productive mainstream of life.
This time around, the performing ensemble was the Rolston String Quartet, sponsored by Astral Artists and comprised of violinists Luri Lee & Jeffrey Dyrda, violist Hezekiah Leung, and cellist Jonathan Lo. Together they performed Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14 in G major, “The Spring,” K. 387; Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Opus 10; and Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Opus 11.
The Canadian-based Rolston launched into the Mozart’s first movement with a foursome of full tones beautifully shaped, a broad range of dynamics, flowing phrasing and a stylish use of focused vibratos. Most impressive was their fine feel for the pulse of each measure as a whole rather than its individual beats. This enabled all four players to establish a bristling sense of dialogue between the expertly balanced set of four voices.
They delineated the second movement Menuetto’s quirky phrases with a superb sense of well propelled soft playing and then caught the spacious nobility of the third movement Andante cantabile. Most impressive of all was their sterling rendition of the fourth movement’s thicket of counterpoint. The differing timbres of Lee and Dyrda made for a compelling duet between the texture’s two upper voices, while Leung and Lo provided a full-throated tenor and bass foundation for the two violinists.
Claude Debussy’s only String Quartet, composed in 1893, remains a seminal work well more than a century after it was written. Along with fellow Frenchman Maurice Ravel’s 1903 sole String Quartet, it successfully bridges the seemingly unbridgeable gap between French Impressionism and Austro-Germanic Classicism. Both works are divided into the traditional four movements, both offer an astounding degree of thematic development voiced in four-part harmony, both employ the highly chromatic tonality of the Impressionism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both are spectacularly idiomatic for their complement of string instruments.
The Rolston established and then maintained a strong thematic flow right at the start of the Quartet’s first movement. They took advantage of the enveloping resonance of the space over the labyrinth at the foyer in St. Paul’s Church to project the full scope of the music’s dramatic climaxes. The Rolston played the tart pizzicatos of the second movement with flair, caught the nostalgic melancholy of the third movement in knowing recognition of Marcel Proust’s contemporaneous “Remembrance of Things Past,” then wrapped it all up with the scintillating frenzied fury of the closing movement.
After intermission, the Rolston gave a splendid performance of Tchaikovsky’s archly romantic First String Quartet, composed and premiered in 1871. Its lack of classical counterpoint in the style of Beethoven does little or nothing to limit its appeal when played with enthusiastic panache, full-bodied tones, expert balance and a sense of take-no-prisoners emotional projection. All these characteristics the members of the Rolston String Quartet displayed in spades Friday evening.
In keeping with the quintessentially American history of Thanksgiving Day, James Gaffigan guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in an almost “all-American” program Nov. 24 & 25 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. A 38-year-old native New Yorker and chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony, Gaffigan led the Philadelphians in performances of George Gershwin’s “Walking the Dog” Promenade and Piano Concerto in F, Antonin Dvorak’s “American” Suite in A major for Orchestra, and Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, Opus 9.
It was in the concert’s final work that Gaffigan and the Philadelphians offered their finest music making. Composed between 1935-36 and revised in 1944, Barber’s First Symphony received its first Philadelphia Orchestra performance in 1938 under Eugene Ormandy’s baton; Bruno Walter led the ensemble in the world premiere of the revised version.
The West Chester-born composer set his First Symphony in one continuous movement, allowing the various sections of the score to flow one into the next without interruption. The result is a tightly knit work that reveals Barber to have beautifully yet powerfully caught the rising tensions and universal concerns of the 1930s, as the world struggled through the Great Depression amid the rise of fascism and militarism across the globe.
Barber, one of the most sensitive of all the great composers of the 20th century, seems to have profoundly internalized these all-too-realistic fears and then subsequently expressed them within the classical structure of symphonic development. Never shying away from jarring dissonances within the context of traditional tonality, Barber employed the full panoply of orchestral timbres to delineate a seething vision of emotional turmoil and spiritual uncertainty.
Gaffigan’s interpretation of the Barber was taut without being tight, highly expressive without being overly expansive, vitally rhythmic without being relentlessly driven and individually distinctive without becoming dangerously eccentric. He drew excellent playing from all sections of the Orchestra and placed the score and its composer securely in the front rank of modern symphonies and musicians. He and the Philadelphians were rewarded with a rousing ovation by the nearly sold-out audience Saturday evening.
Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker was the soloist in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Composed in 1925, the year after “Rhapsody in Blue,” the Concerto in F is Gershwin’s most classically structured score, divided into the traditional three-movement piano concerto perfected nearly two centuries before by Mozart. Its first movement is highly developmental, its second sublimely lyrical and its third skittishly virtuosic. From start to finish, though, it speaks in Gershwin’s unique blend of Tin Pan Alley, Jazz and French-accented 20th century classicism. Its “fellow travelers” in the form and of the era are Ravel’s Concerti in G major and D major, Prokofiev’s Third Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto and “Paganini Rhapsody.”
Parker, who two years ago played the original jazz band version of “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Philadelphians, gave the Concerto an expert rendition. He projected its jazzy rhythms without exaggeration, inflected its melting lyricism with just enough – but not too much – melodic give-and-take to make it sound spontaneous, and served up the appropriate amount of virtuosity to achieve a dazzling finale.
Donald Runnicles will mount the Orchestra’s podium Nov. 30 & Dec. 2 in a program that includes Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony No. 38, selections from Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” and the Overture to Wagner’s “Tannhauser.”
CONCERTS ON THE HILL
The Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players will perform “Pastorale: The Holidays in Italy” Saturday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Visit www.tempestadimare.org for ticket information.
Paul Rardin will lead the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia in “A Feast of Carols” Saturday, Dec. 9, at 5 p.m. in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill. Visit www.mccchorus.org for ticket information.
Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, will perform “Es Ist Ein Rose: A German Renaissance Christmas” Saturday, Dec. 16, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Visit www.piffaro.org for ticket information.
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