“Three B’s” Include an Astonishing Bloch

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Bloch, Michael Brown, and Brahms: Julio Elizalde (piano); Arnaud Sussmann and Jessica Lee (violins); Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Alan Iglitzin (violas); Patrick Jee and Nicholas Canellakis (cellos); Olympic Music Festival, Quilcene, WA, 26.8.2012 (BJ)

Stravinsky: Suite italienne
Bloch: Piano Quintet No. 1
Michael Brown: Dialogues for Violin and Cello (world premiere)
Brahms: String Sextet No. 2 in G major

Even in a summer that has seen some superb artistic achievements at Alan Iglitzin’s festival in rural Washington state, the penultimate weekend must be accounted something very special. Both the quality of the music programmed and the way it was played rose far above the ordinary.

Sunday afternoon’s concert began and ended with wonderful performances of, respectively, the Suite italienne derived from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella ballet and the second of Brahms’s two string sextets. Heard in the version for cello and piano, the Stravinsky showcased the talent of cellist Patrick Jee. Impressive as he had been a week earlier in music by Mozart and Schoenfield, this performance was even more impressive in revealing a truly outstanding artist. He managed to make the saltando (bounced bow) effects in the Serenata at once trippingly light and expressively substantial. His marshaling of crisp offbeat accents in collaboration with the equally accomplished Julio Elizalde was masterly, and the two drew winningly succulent grace from the smooth lines of the Minuetto in the final movement.

The Sextet No. 2 in G major that Brahms wrote at the age of 31 is a work of total maturity and richly varied expressive moods. Almost all of these were realized to compelling effect in this performance. My only slight disappointment came with the final variation in the slow movement, where the musicians’ enthusiasm and expressive zest led them to play rather more loudly than the composer’s markings warrant, so that this magically floating E-major meditation emerged rather less ethereal than it can be. But the finale that followed was a complete success, from Jessica Lee’s warmly burnished G-string tone in the main theme to the headlong jubilation and infectious team-spirit of the conclusion.

In between these two well-known works, Elizalde, who serves alongside Iglitzin as the festival’s associate artistic director, came up with one that was much less familiar – indeed, I was hearing it for the first time – and another that was not previously known at all. Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1 is a perfectly astonishing piece, the product of a too-often underrated composer at the height of his powers. The outer two of its three movements maintain a hell-for-leather pace that presents one extraordinary rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic inspiration after another: by the side of this music’s irrepressible impetus, even some of the most uninhibitedly motoric movements Shostakovich was writing a few years later might seem in memory quite polite. Violinists Arnaud Sussmann and Jessica Lee, violist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and pianist Elizalde played with uncompromising thrust and thrilling emotional intensity, while clearly having a great deal of fun. The sharply contrasted middle movement, marked Andante mistico, benefitted especially from the lustrous tone Wu drew from her viola. And the end of the finale demonstrated excellent judgement on the part of the composer, who, doubtless realizing that it would be impossible to top the sheer excitement the earlier stages of the movement had built up, elected instead to go in a completely different direction with a die-away coda that revisits and intensifies the mood of the Andante.

In such company, a new work from a composer surely unknown to the festival’s audience could easily be overshadowed. But the Dialogues for Violin and Cello that Michael Brown had written for the occasion proved to be a highly attractive and artfully written piece, which packs a deal of musical substance into its seven-minute duration. Brown, in a spoken introduction to the second performance on Sunday, explained the title’s significance in alluding to “conversations” both between the two players and the two disparate elements in the music’s tempo and phrasing. What he modestly did not mention was his skillful integration of the work’s mysterious slow sections with its brusquely contrasted quick passages. Differences in pace, figuration, and articulation provided ample variety, yet the thematic materials, and particularly the near-hypnotic emphasis on the interval of the minor third, were handled in such a way as to assure easily perceptible unity across all the contrasts.

The performance by Sussmann and Canellakis was rivetingly vivid. Michael Brown is certainly a young composer to watch – and on the coming weekend of 1 and 2 September he will face the Quilcene audience in his other capacity, in a piano-four-hands recital with Julio Elizalde that promises to bring the 29th Olympic Musical Festival to a splendidly entertaining conclusion. If you live anywhere in the Greater Seattle area, don’t miss it.

Bernard Jacobson