Apart from that, Mr. Lincoln, refined chamber music from Ravinia

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Consider this: what are the odds of hearing Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz in two  different versions within 48 hours at the same venue in Miami Beach?  That unlikely phenomena happened the second time on Tuesday night with Musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Institute, an event presented by Friends of Chamber Music.

The Steans Institute is the conservatory wing of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Steans’ program director Miriam Fried is a long-acclaimed violinist in her own right, and Fried and the Steans students displayed impressive maturity and virtually faultless ensemble in a nicely varied program.

Imaginative as Eduardo Marturet’s arrangement of Langsamer Satz for large orchestra was, played by the Miami Symphony Sunday night, the intimacy of this Late Romantic slow movement works more successfully in the original version for string quartet. Webern’s rhapsodic outpouring was rendered with acute tonal sensitivity and refined feeling by violinists Robin Scott and Fried, violist Yoonji Kang and cellist Michael Nicolas.

Felix Mendelssohn’s bicentennial year was observed with his String Quintet No. 2. A late work—as late as any music can be by a composer who died at 38—the quintet inhabits a similar world as Mendelssohn’s Octet written two decades earlier, with a spontaneous flow of melody, not least the soaring opening movement.

Joined by second violist Yuna Lee, the  musicians showed themselves wholly sympathetic to this repertoire with surging momentum in the Allegro vivace and consistently springy interplay between members. The playfulness of the piquant scherzo was as deftly handled as the darker shadows of the D-minor Adagio with superb playing by first violinist Scott. Throughout the Ravinia players held Mendelssohn’s airy lyric grace and driving energy in an ideal balance, dynamic but never sacrificing an essential refinement.

Two piano trios were heard on the first half. The concert did its part for yet another bicentennial, that of Abraham Lincoln, with James Crowley’s From the Earth, commissioned by Ravinia.

The piano trio alternates musical sections with a narrator reading excerpts from the Gettysburg Address. The Illinois composer has stated that he consciously avoided any sense of majesty or triumphalism in the music. “There are no heroic clichés here . . . .” writes Crowley. “Instead, I’ve tried to capture a sense of anxiety and tension while also projecting, I hope, a sense of inner beauty and calm.”

Launched with a loud piano chord, the music is centered on an angular edgy quality with a see-sawing string motif in the opening section and highlighted by Bartokian pinched tonality, extreme dynamics and crunched high harmonics. 

Crowley’s trio avoids banal patriotic cliché, but is less successful in offering a valid alternative. The dark, acidy style seems like a throwback to the academic 1970s, with the music relentlessly dour and grim, almost comically divorced from the stirring eloquence of Lincoln’s words. Scott, Nicolas, and pianist Helen Huang gave the work alert and attentive advocacy, and Sarena Bahad, a Florida International University student, spoke Lincoln’s texts with clarity and precision.

No complaints about the opener, Mozart’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, K 502. Fried took the first violin chair for the only time Tuesday night and, along with Nicolas and Huang, provided a virtual seminar in Mozart style. The music consistently sparkled with lithe, lightly sprung ensemble, bringing out the wit as well as the deeper expression with Huang’s poised keyboard work  notable in the Larghetto.

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Wed Mar 25, 2009
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