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Crossing the Danube

New York
Weill Recital Hall
04/25/2001 -  
Anton Reicha: Quartet # 2 for Flute and Strings
Leos Janacek: Suite for Strings
Antonin Dvorak: Serenade for Winds

St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble

If one compares the harmonic language of one of the London symphonies of Haydn with that of the Symphony in D Minor of Cesar Franck, it is virtually impossible to imagine that one artist could have been the musical intimate of both of these men and yet such a person existed. Anton Reicha played the flute in the Bonn orchestra when Beethoven inhabited the viola section and studied with not only Haydn but Albrechtsberger and Salieri as well (thus establishing an indirect link to Mozart). He was still teaching in Paris in the 1830’s when Franck, a keyboard prodigy of 12, began to study composition privately with him. Reicha is known today, if at all, for his marvelous series of wind quintets and is a prime example of a Germanized Czech (the program last evening referred to him at differing times as Anton and Antonin). Like Franz Liszt (whom he also knew), Reicha was totally absorbed into the Vienna of his day (no one refers to the great composer as Liszt Ferenc any longer). The lovingly executed performance of his Quartet # 2 by members of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s made a strong case for his ultimate resurrection from the sepulcher of the musical historical footnote. It is ironic that academia has classified the music of Czechoslovakia as “nationalistic”, since the country itself, as shown by its recent division into two separate nations, is really a polyglot of cultures. Last evening’s intelligent program visited three of its several distinct ethnicities.

With the exception of London, New York has the most brimming stable of orchestras in the world. Imagine that we are able to hear the Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, the leaderless chamber ensemble Orpheus, the American Symphony and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on a regular basis and feel free to proudly call them our own local bands. St. Luke’s of all of these groups is perhaps the most consistent, producing a reliable level of quality at all of its events, regardless of the size of the performing body. In chamber music they generate a certain summer camp feel, the performances are all highly invested in musicianship and the sheer love of performing. This type of professional amateurism is infectious and savvy Gotham audiences know that these concerts will always be first rate.

The Reicha reading was remarkable for its restraint. Not easily pigeonholed as either Classical or Romantic, the music doesn’t follow the standard conventions of fast slow fast but rather grows organically from an initially elongated melodic line, a scaled down version of the Beethoven ”Pastorale”. Flautist Elizabeth Mann impressed with her subtractions: no unnecessary flourishes or vibrati, rather a subdued and stately approach which allowed the complex melodies to unfold like spring flowers. Matching her noticeable style was the controlled playing of violinist Mayuki Fukuhara, who demonstrated extreme versatility by letting loose in an entirely different technique as the second violinist in the Janacek.

The organ master from Brno is the prime example of “Czech” music which comes from another racial group entirely. Moravian by birth and Slavic by descent (the “glagolithic” in the title of his powerful mass referring to an old Slavonic variant of the Cyrillic alphabet), Janacek is also the victim of the simplification of the textbook. Conventional wisdom tells us that all of his great compositions come from the last ten years of his life, when he flourished as an opera composer and fell in love with a woman close to forty years his junior. The implication is that the rest was simply an extended period of juvenilia and yet this surprising Suite for Strings would testify otherwise. What was immediately striking about the St. Luke’s performance was the hugeness of its sound, five instruments extolling like 100. The inclusion of the double bass is the key here and the combination of its sonority with that of the cello produced some terribly exotic harmonic timbres, vaguely imbued with the pentatonic idiom of the East. This was very interesting music, played in a febrile manner, however the performance suffered somewhat by a decided tendency to hold notes just a little too long, the effect being a surely unwanted drone throughout.

That combination of deep strings was a natural bridge to the Dvorak, rather misleadingly entitled the Serenade for Winds. In this famous piece of Bohemian music (yet another variant on the purely “Czech”) the two bowed instruments provide the rhythmic grounding for the nine winds, who hover somewhere between the worlds of the concert stage and the railway station band. This is charming peasant music elevated to art status and attacked crisply by the St. Luke’s players. This is really THE wind piece for this size ensemble (only the Richard Strauss comes close in popularity) and so I have heard it performed at all levels, from junior school to the Berlin Philharmonic. Initially, the band dug in fiercely, challenging all of us not to bob our heads in sympathetic unity (we endearingly failed) but I was deflated by a rather flabby finale, somewhat raveled and out of tune. The ruffles and flourishes of the ending were weak, the intonation surreal. But overall this night was a charming tour of the provinces and, at least in the first half, an important foray into too long neglected repertoire.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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