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Take the "A" Train

New York
Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn
08/05/1999 -  
Jean Francaix: String Trio in C Major
Frederic Chopin: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet #3, Op. 60

Christiaan Bor (violin), Marcus Thompson (viola), Ronald Thomas (cello), Edward Auer (piano)

I have written in these pages before about the magical experience that is Bargemusic in the summer but what struck me on this trip to the East River moorings was the insular nature of musical life in Manhattan. We spoiled city dwellers begin to develop a chrysalis of smugness that doesn't allow for any serious music making to be created off of our sophisticated island. And yet in full view of the southern tip of Manhattan is the wondrous barge of Olga Bloom wherein interesting chamber music concerts take place twice every week (three times in the summer). The Fulton Ferry Landing is in itself a treasure, celebrating Brooklyn's most famous son, Walt Whitman. Etched into the railings at the water's edge are quotes from the great celebrater of himself including "Throb, Baffled and Curious Brain! Throw Out Questions and Answers!". The landing is alive with children and fishermen and, at least on this glorious summer eve, a live photo shoot of bikini-clad ladies.

Inside the barge was a full house of expectant music lovers and they were treated to a solid program. The Francaix piece was typically insouciant and complex (Francaix is the difficult alter ego of Poulenc) and played with elan by this ensemble which did however seem a little hesitant in spots. It did not seem that they had often played together as a group and this makes for some choppy entrances and exits. The Chopin Sonata was much tighter and it would have been obvious to all even if it were not announced that the two men often performed the work together. Mr. Thomas was flawless throughout and had a very satisfying vibrato which could appeal to modern sensibilities and still exude a faint aroma of a more portamento era.

The featured work of the evening was the "Suicide Quartet" of Brahms. In an effort to involve the audience in the intellectual side of the music, Mr. Thomas explained that the third movement of this piece was written when Brahms was a lovesick youth (he had a great passion in those days for Clara Schumann) but neglected to point out that the almost unbearably depressing first movement was also written in those early years and that Brahms was contemplating suicide over his unrequited love during its composition. Perhaps Mr. Thomas omitted this part because he was aware that his pick up group was not about to play the movement with anywhere near the required white hot intensity that is its stock in trade. If ever there were a movement of music that required tautness and percussive attack it is this one and the evening's performance was sadly lacking. Most of the notes were there of course, but the phrasing and the ensemble angst was conspicuously absent.

One of the great conceits of this quartet is that the mature Brahms, once he took up the pen again twenty years later to finish this masterpiece, relentlessly continues the emotional tensile strength of the first movement by starting the second off in the same key of C Minor. But without the emotion in the first movement, the second lost its effect as well. It was also disconcerting to not see these four men move and breath as a unit, leaving them not so much chamber musicians as four soloists in a small room.

Mr. Thomas played the amazingly beautiful main theme of the third movement masterfully and I was ready to forgive all for a brief while. However the love song did not sustain its lyrical quality throughout and the ending of this youthful gem of a movement, one of the greatest piano passages in all chamber music (Robert Haven Schauffler called it "…the incomparable summary of the last page") was absolutely limp in the hands of Mr. Auer. The problematic last section was also a little loose for my taste. But this is still a monumental work and its impact is so great that the evening was still a moving experience, particularly when one factors in the magnificent views of lower Manhattan and the sensation of movement under one's chair that is unique to music on the water. Perhaps not the greatest of evenings aboard the barge, but always a unique event that put the lie to the idea that only in Manhattan is there any true culture. Bargemusic is nothing if not interesting in its variety and if you are lucky enough to attend, I promise you that your evening will be a memorable one.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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