For Something Old and Something New, a Happy Hunting Ground

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Elgar, Jalbert, and Britten: East Coast Chamber Orchestra, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 13.5.2016. (BJ)

Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546
Elgar: Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra, Op. 20
Jalbert: String Theory (commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society through support from the William Penn Foundation–world premiere)
Britten: String Quartet No. 2 in C major, Op. 36 (arr. ECCO)


United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Krzywicki, and Brahms: Clarosa Quartet, Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 15.5.2016 (BJ)

Beethoven: String Trio in C minor, Op. 9 No. 3
Krzywicki: Quartet for Piano and Strings (commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society–world premiere)
Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26

Scheduling conflicts have prevented me from hearing all the new works Philadelphia Chamber Music Society had commissioned to celebrate its 30th-anniversary season, now nearing its close, but I caught up with the last two of them, in programs that typified the Society’s penchant for stimulating combinations of new music with old.

Now 48, New-Hampshire native Pierre Jalbert has written for the conductor-less East Coast Chamber Orchestra a work that demonstrates his thorough professionalism. His program note explains that his three-movement String Theory “was inspired by the idea of dynamic vibrating strings, referring to both the musical instruments and the theory of quantum gravity,” but—as is not always the case—its lively rhythms and clean textures can be enjoyed without reference to any such theoretical basis.

If String Theory comes across as essentially a skillful and agreeable response to a commission, the roughly 23-minute Quartet for Piano and Strings by 68-year-old Philadelphia native Jan Krzywicki creates a stronger sense of being music that its composer just had to write. Of its four movements, the opening Scherzo takes a while to establish a clear expressive character, but the music grows in stature as its progresses. I found the slow second movement quite ravishingly beautiful, and, after the very effective Toccata third movement, the predominantly slow final Fantasia brings the work to a no less gripping and eloquent conclusion.

The performance, by the two wives and two husbands that constitute the Clarosa Quartet, was superb. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s First Associate Concertmaster, Juliette Kang, played with wonderfully well-focused tone, and her quality was matched by violist Che-Hung Chen (also a Philadelphia Orchestra member), cellist Thomas Kraines, and pianist Natalie Zhu. There are a few places in the score where Krzywicki asks the pianist “to produce various sounds in side the instrument: ‘stopped’ notes (a note muted with a finger that produces a blocked or pizzicato-like sound), plucked notes (with finger or plectrum), and notes strummed in a glissando-like manner.” Such devices can sometimes seem like mannerisms to compensate for the absence of musical inspiration, but in this case they played a modest but sufficiently effective part in the overall atmosphere of the work, and Ms. Zhu took them in her stride.

The group’s three string players were equally impressive in the too rarely heard Beethoven trio that opened the program, and Brahms’s irresistibly inventive A-major Piano Quartet, featuring one of the composer’s most gorgeous tunes in its slow movement, provided the program with a no less rewarding close (though the omission of the first-movement exposition repeat provoked, in my book, the afternoon’s sole complaint).

ECCO, a polished and vividly expressive chamber orchestra, had similarly done justice to Jalbert’s piece two days earlier, and its performance of Elgar’s charming little Serenade was pleasant too. I found the Mozart and Britten works on the orchestra’s program somewhat less convincingly realized. The dotted rhythms of Mozart’s Adagio—which the composer obviously stole from the opening of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—were trenchantly delivered, but in the Fugue bows did not dig into strings as forcefully as they might have done, and the somewhat bodiless tone that resulted seemed to diminish the stature of this powerfully concentrated music.

The problem with Britten’s masterly C-major Quartet did not lie with the playing, which was both strong and sensitive: it was the inevitable consequence of performing the work in an arrangement (by the group). The impact and formal cohesion of the first movement depends on the clarity with which the ardent rising-10th interval of the main theme is realized, and massed strings cannot achieve that result nearly as well as the single instruments of a string quartet can. Nevertheless, the spacious and deeply meditative final Chacony did not suffer from the same disadvantage, and in these dedicated players’ hands its effect was compellingly grand and climactic.

Bernard Jacobson

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