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04/28/2009 -  
Luigi Boccherini: String Quintet in E Major, Op 11, No. 5
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet (World Premiere)
Robert Schumann: Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat Major, Op 44

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio: Joseph Kalichstein (Piano), Jaime Laredo (Violin), Sharon Robinson (Cello)
Miami String Quartet: Benny Kim (Substitute First Violin), Cathy Meng Robinson (Violin), Yu Jin (Viola), Keith Robinson (Cello)

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

The 92nd Street Y is becoming an institutionalized house of birthdays. Last week, the hall celebrated the 70th birthday of Heinz Holliger with the American premiere of his Second String Quartet. Last night, the noted American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was a few hours from her own four score and ten with the world premiere of her Septet, co-commissioned by the 92 Y itself.

Actually, Ms. Zwilich has had multiple "four score and ten", her scores probably numbering in the hundreds, although it is difficult to say she has a distinctive personality. She is very "American" with tasteful references to jazz, she is extremely accomplished in every genre, and no work of hers has anything but the most competent workmanship.

This Septet couldnít have been in more skillful hands-all 14 of them. The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio has been renowned for some 32 years, ever since their first concert, for the Inauguration for President Jimmy Carter. The Miami Quartet has made an excellent reputation in the past two decades. Both groups are pierced through with energy-and that was exactly what was called for in Ms. Zwilichís new work.

From the very first rapid-fire octave theme on the piano, followed by strings, the first movement takes off with some superb ensemble changes. Whatever one may have thought about the original ideas, Ms. Zwilich has given vast variety to her relatively large chamber ensemble. The contrast of the always dominant piano with the soloists of the trio, with the group work of the quartet or with the large de facto string orchestra of all six players never lost interest, was always pulsing away, and in a rather orthodox sonata form, had a fascinating impetus.

The second movement ("Quasi una passacaglia") was reminiscent of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto passacaglia, though without the passion of the latter. Yet, through a mixture of canonic and repetitive forms, the composer again offered a fascinating look at her creative processes.

The third movement was the de rigueur look at some subtly bouncy jazz riffs, just enough to show that she too can be a ďfun" composer. But the last movement, Au revoir, was beautifully heartfelt, ending, like Haydnís "Farewell" with a fading sound.

My only negative feeling about the piece is that the piano is so dominating in its percussive sound that it never quite gave room for the strings to show off their vestments. Perhaps Mr. Kalichstein played too loudly, perhaps Ms Zwilich didnít realize that it sometimes came out like a piano work with string accompaniment. Perhaps it could be transformed to a piece for piano, string trio and string orchestra.

But the composer is so adroit, I am sure she will have noticed whatever shortcomings there may have been. For while the ensemble is a rare one, any good orchestra should be able to get their first chair players to work this through.

The evening finished with Schumannís marvelous Quintet, Mr. Kalichstein again on the piano. In this case, Robert Schumann knew exactly what the balance was, and we heard an ensemble playing some of the composerís most inspired chamber moments (oh! That haunting second movement) with the balance of five equal instruments.

The first work, one of Boccheriniís thousands of quartets with an extra cello (the composerís own instrument), was a fine opener. Not for that minuet, (which, like FŁr Elise is Everymanís idea of "classical music") but for the perfect placidity of the music itself.

Most travelers in Lucca pay obeisance to the homes and churches of Puccini, but I made a beeline for Boccheriniís modest birthplace. If music can reflect anything of the composerís personality, Boccherini must have been one of the nicest, most unruffled, delightful individuals. The Miami Quartet didnít even play the minuet as a throwaway piece, but gave the composer his full, and well-deserved diligence.

Harry Rolnick



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