Communication is key to Ensemble Connect’s eclectic, exciting concert at Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States Various: Ensemble Connect, Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 24.10.2022. (RP)

Rubén Rengel (violin), Joanne Kang (harpsichord) and Amir Farsi (flute) © Fadi Kheir

Ensemble Connect: Laura Andrade (cello), Amir Farsi (flute), Nik Hooks (bassoon), Joanne Kang (piano/harpsichord), Halam Kim (viola), Rubén Rengel (violin), Cort Roberts (horn), Yasmina Spiegelberg (clarinet). Alum: Garrett Arney (percussion)

Martinů – Quartet for Clarinet, Horn, Cello and Snare Drum, H.139
Clara Schumann – Piano Trio in G Minor, Op.17
Eleanor Alberga – String Quartet No.2
J. S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.5

Ensemble Connect makes a chamber music concert an immersive experience. There are printed programs, but a member of the ensemble nonetheless introduces each work, providing insights into the composer, the work and the players’ approach to interpreting and performing it. They aren’t the first to do it, but few do it better.

Martinů may have been Czech, but he was cut from different cloth than either Dvořák or Janáček. Nationalism wasn’t his thing. In Paris, he was exposed to the music of ‘Les Six’, jazz and Stravinsky, which launched him in a new direction. The Russian composer’s influence was so evident in some of Martinů’s works, such as in the Quartet for Clarinet, Horn, Cello and Snare Drum performed at this concert, that the critics dubbed him the ‘Czech Stravinsky’. It wasn’t necessarily a compliment.

Hornist Cort Roberts explained that there are four basic groups of musical instruments and Martinů chose one from each of them for the Quartet – just not the ones you might expect. Roberts invited the audience to exalt in the diversity of sounds and the very distinct music that Martinů composed for each of them. He compared the three-movement work to Thanksgiving Dinner, when family members gather and the conversation flows in any and all directions, but good will prevails.

Yasmina Spiegelberg (clarinet), Garrett Arney (percussion), Laura Andrade (cello) and Cort Roberts (horn) © Fadi Kheir

The quartet begins with the beat of the snare drum and ends the same way. In between are moments of cacophony and lyrical beauty. The latter were found mostly in the Poco andante in the playing of cellist Laura Andrade, who transformed the extended meditations that open and close the movement into profound mournful meditations.

To contemporary eyes, Clara Schumann appeared to have it all as wife, mother and career woman. The reality, however, was somewhat different as Andrade explained in introducing Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor.

Clara’s husband was a brilliant composer, but he suffered from a mental illness that would lead to his being committed to an asylum and an early death. She was the mother of eight children, but another died in infancy, and she suffered multiple miscarriages. Her concert tours kept her away from her family for extended periods of time but were necessary to financially support the family. And in keeping with nineteenth-century mores, Clara believed that women could never equal men as composers.

The impassioned playing of the trio by violinist Rubén Rengel, pianist Joanne Kang and Andrade dispelled that myth. They united in a performance that was intimate and balanced as well as moving and elegant. The Andante was infused with a complexity of dynamics and shadings that added exceptional emotion depth to the most lyrical of the four movements. The finely articulated and fiery fugue in the Allegretto brought the work to an exciting end.

Jamaican-born composer Eleanor Alberga describes herself as a ‘mainstream British composer’; Arise! Athena!, her short choral work, was commissioned for the closing night of the 2015 BBC Proms. Alberga’s String Quartet No.2 was composed in 1994, shortly after her marriage to violinist Thomas Bowen with whom she regularly performs.

Violinist Halam Kim explained that Alberga constructed the entire fifteen-minute work on a two-note cell which she alters in a myriad of ways. The result is an intense and analytical piece, but Kim suggested a two-fold approach to the quartet. First, to become an active listener and try to detect the ways in which the composer manipulates the two notes; and then to find the lightness in it.

The four string players reveled in the work’s intricacies and depth. Their precision and passion were evident as they explored and exploited Alberga’s seemingly endless variations on the two-note theme. When the work came to a close, there was a passage that was suddenly playful and light as the violin played what almost amounted to a melody on the violin to pizzicato playing on the viola. For just a moment, there was a whiff of Jamaica in the air.

It fell to Kang to introduce Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.5, a work which she readily admitted needs no introduction. Her only advice was to enjoy the dialogue between soloists (the concertino) and full orchestra (the ripieno). In the performance, however, the virtuosic exchanges between Rengel and flutist Amir Farsi were what impressed most, except when Kang on the harpsichord was herself in the forefront.

Bach was a keyboard virtuoso and most certainly composed the harpsichord part for himself. The opening Allegretto climaxes in a sixty-five-measure cadenza for unaccompanied harpsichord, which Kang performed with such mesmerizing mastery that spontaneous applause erupted at the end of the movement.

Ensemble Connect is so much more than a performing ensemble. Each of its members are assigned to teach in a New York City school. Their students must have even more remarkable experiences with these exceptional musicians than the audiences for their innovative and masterful performances at Carnegie Hall. How lucky can they be?

Rick Perdian

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