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Rare Music, Rare Playing

New York
Grace Rainey Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
10/29/2010 -  
Ottorino Respighi: Il Tramonto: Lyric poem for mezzo soprano and string quartet, from the poem “Sunset” by Percy Shelley
Antonín Dvorák: Two Waltzes for two violins, viola, cello, double bass, Opus 54
Robert Cuckson: Der gayst fumem shturem (“Spirit of the Storm”) (Five poems by Bimen Heller)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet in A Major for clarinet and strings, K. 581

The Musicians from Marlboro: Jennifer Johnson (Mezzo-Soprano), Sarah Beatty (Clarinet), Angela Cordell Bilger (Horn), Sivan Magen (Harp), Ida Levin, Yonah Zur (Violins), Beth Guterman (Viola), Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir (Cello), Zachary Cohen (Double bass)

S. Beaty (© sarahbeaty.co.uk)

For those of us unable to get to the Marlboro Festival in Vermont each summer, Marlboro now comes to us. Perhaps not its directors, Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida, but ten professional musicians of varying experience and experiences, as part of The Musicians from Marlboro.

Last night, the Metropolitan Museum of Art played host to these fine artists. While not easy to get to the music gallery–one ascends the massive steps, has bags inspected, makes way through the main lobby, turns left at the Egyptian exhibit, strolls through endless fascinating cases of mummies, cartouches, skulls, gods and goddesses, then into the Grace Rainey Auditorium–it is presumably easier than driving through the Green Mountain State.

Once here, the well-lit stage, the fine acoustics, and above all, the excellent musicians playing largely unfamiliar music, makes the trip well worthwhile.

The first half had some rarities, but after the intermission, the full house could relax with the familiar but always welcome Mozart Clarinet Quintet, played with a warm, confident player. Sarah Beaty is British, and the Brits to clarinets are what the Russians are to violins. It runs in their blood. Or at least in their embouchure. For Ms. Beaty, with the help of four string players, took the Mozart in her stride.

Most American clarinet players can’t help but show off their often considerate technique. They play louder than usual, pause before difficult phrases, and give it the old Artie Shaw treatment. Nothing wrong with that, since concert business is show business.

But Ms. Beaty didn’t need that. Her body swayed with the music, but the tones were mellow, the phrasing even, the technique self-assured. The operative word, though, is “natural”. Ms. Beaty didn’t deliver the music as much as let the music be delivered, without fuss or undue delicacy.

As for the finale, only Mozart can take a theme which, at its best, is childishly elementary, and transform it into a glowing series of jewels.

The first half featured mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson in two very unusual works. Like Ms. Beaty, she has a vocal tone which flows with the touch, but her two works were vastly different.

Ottorino Respighi’s double translation of a Shelley poem (translated into Italian and into music) is rarely played, for it never resembles his great tone poems or orchestrations of ancient music. In fact, the string quartet playing is moody, dark, complicated, with few rays of light. When played without voice, it was reminiscent of Strauss’s enigmatic Metamorphoses.

Ms. Johnson made the difference. Nothing was purely lyrical in an Italian sense. In fact, with the mezzo stranding towards the back of the string quartet (led by famed virtuoso Ida Levin), she was part of the fabric. Only in the penultimate line, where the madwoman intones “Pace!”–Peace–did her voice rise up for this emotional climax.

For Australian-American composer Robert Cuckson’s five poems, sung in Yiddish, Ms. Johnson took her rightful place at the front of the stage. Mr. Cuckson, in attendance, had an interesting orchestration–clarinet, horn, harp, violin, viola, cello and bass. But the instruments were used sparingly. The horn signaled a Nazi guard, the harp and clarinet pictured raindrops and a very grotesque image: “The dream of an aroma of an apple”, the apple rolling and dancing down the steps.

The last poem was by far the longest and saddest. The young blond commander driving the Jews into the Warsaw cellar, where all that is left are the old poems–the Amollike lider–the songs of yesterday.

I always thought Yiddish was a picturesque but not especially lyrical language, but Ms. Johnson sung and spoke the language with a rare grace.

One mustn’t forget Two Waltzes composed and arranged for string quintet by Antonín Dvorák. With Ms. Levin leading the group, this was not really concert music. It was the music which Dvorák, in his Czech village, perhaps played with his pals on a little lane for the fun of it.

It would be pure chuzpah (yes, a Yiddish word) to compare the Dvorák to the Mozart Quintet. But last night, they both had the kind of spontaneous instinctive flow which can only be produced by the most deft musicians.

Harry Rolnick



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