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Under a Bushel

New York
Merkin Concert Hall
10/21/2003 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet, K 406
Alexander Zemlinsky: Two Movements
Johannes Brahms: Quintet # 2

Xiao-Dong Wang and Ittai Shapira (violins)
Rachel Shapiro and Ara Gregorian (violas)
Sophie Shao (cello)

I probably have said this in print before; I certainly buttonhole everyone in the critical community like the Ancient Mariner at the wedding, but I simply don’t understand why the extraordinary chamber group Concertante is not playing at the major venues in the United States. I have a great fondness for the Merkin hall (in fact, my very first assignment as a reviewer was there), but it is decidedly a minor league arena. Concertante should be featured in a series at Weill or Alice Tully.

Maybe I have a distorted idea of the mission of this remarkable ensemble. They are perhaps not in existence to be simply a performing body, but are instead a more organic institution, a significant stepping-stone to the top echelon, a Triple A team. Surely the personnel changes over time, but the quality and the youthful vigor remain steadfastly intact. Their most recent concert assured me that, whatever their raison d’etre, there is not a finer assemblage of intimate communicators in all of New York.

This particular evening was atypical, as the same five members performed each of the three works on the program. Normally for Concertante, there is a round robin style of play, much more of a private musicale feel, with friends and neighbors taking turns forming differing magical combinations. But this night we were treated to a more standard bill of fare, the only changes in the string quintet the alternation of first and second violins and violas. The one constant was the exceptional play of the cellist Sophie Shao.

It may seem less than collegial to single out this one player above the others, but her level of play this night forced the issue in a most pleasant manner (I was accompanied by a very fine chamber musician in her own right, who, quite unprompted, raved about Ms. Shao’s professionalism). If indeed Concertante exists as a conduit to stardom, then they have found an apt candidate. To a certain extent, there is a downside to this concentration on only one voice as a distraction in the gestalt of the chamber experience, but it was difficult not to admire the tone and propulsion of the cello in the Mozart or its much more well-defined sonority in the two Zemlinsky character studies. Perhaps the other musicians had simply been as blown away as we all were about to be with the fullness of body of the sound emanating from this player, and designed a program to feature its richness. This would explain the inclusion of the chamber work that, above all others in the literature, creates an instant showcase for the zaftig cellist: the opening of the Brahms Quintet #2 contains the most ebullient combination of lyricism and power in the entire repertoire for violoncello and Ms. Shao certainly did not disappoint. She is ready for solo appearances with major orchestras; this reviewer can anticipate in the mind’s ear, for example, a thrilling rendition of the raw-boned Dvorak concerto.

One other exciting aspect of a Concertante soiree, and one not to be minimized, is the preponderance of young people in the audience. Putting the lie to the idée fixe of New York print critics that gimmicky evenings of contemporary music will somehow attract the new generation (all recent demographic evidence to the contrary), it is rather solidly articulated, high quality, uncompromising performances of the world’s greatest music by artists from their peer group that stand the best chance of effective proselytizing.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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