Lesser known works prove most compelling with Frost Chamber Players

By Alan Becker

The Bergonzi String Quartet was among the Frost faculty members performing Sunday at Festival Miami

Festival Miami can usually be counted on for some interesting programs, and this was certainly the case Sunday night, when the Bergonzi String Quartet was joined by other faculty members at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall.

The event was promoted as “chamber music by Schumann, Schubert and others,” yet it was the “others” on the program that drew the most attention.

Walter S. Hartley (b.1927) is not a name familiar to most concertgoers. His Dance Suite for violin, alto saxophone and piano, dates from 1985 and is a cheeky, jazz-inflected romp, guaranteed to chase the blues away. The opening Polonaise Brillante almost threatens to break into Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, but never quite does. The ensuing Valse Lente, and Polka Fantasque were designed to tickle the funny bone, and did so with immense pleasure.  What a great concert opener, and as sax player Dale Underwood coaxed all the charm out of the piece, pianist Tian Ying and violinist Scott Flavin contributed their devilish best. 
Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) lost his family to the Holocaust, yet managed to flee to Russia where he was befriended by Shostakovich. During Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges he was arrested but saved by Shostakovich’s intervention.

Weinberg’s Piano Trio from 1945 is a deeply felt expression of his tragic experiences, yet rarely self-pitying. To discover this composer is to discover a little-known master, only now being revealed to the world. Flavin’s violin, along with the profound lyricism of Ross Harbaugh’s cello, and Paul Posnak’s powerful pianism, captured all of the angst and profundity of this masterpiece. The players managed to maintain correct intonation while projecting the full power of the music. 
Robert Schumann’s Andante and Variations for two cellos, french horn, and two pianos is another near-stranger to the concert scene. He remarked “I think I was rather melancholy when I composed it”.  With such an odd combination of instruments, Schumann speedily rewrote it for two pianos. In any format, it’s a substantial composition from a composer caught in the full bloom of Romanticism.

The original version is considerably longer than the revision, so chalk up another winner for the Frost players. Richard Todd’s horn playing was especially secure in areas others might fear to tread, particularly in the fanfares of variation 7. 
The Bergonzi Quartet took on the challenges of Schubert’s well-known String Quartet No.14 in D Minor, Death and the Maiden. The title is taken from the composer’s song, which provides the theme for a set of variations in the second movement. While the first movement’s Allegro is one of turbulence and unrest, the Bergonzi’s played down these elements and gave us a reading without the usual vehemence. There were no such problems in the simple beauty of the slow movement, but the cross-accents of the Scherzo and final Presto were too gentle when one wanted to be shaken by the scruff of the neck. If this was not your usual Death and the Maiden, it was a well executed and thought-provoking alternative.

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Mon Oct 12, 2009
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