Festival closes with a retooled concerto mainly by Mozart

By David Fleshler

The Mainly Mozart Festival ended its adult series Sunday at the Coral Gables Museum with, appropriately, a work by Mozart. Or as the cellist Aaron Merritt put it, a work that was “mainly Mozart,” an arrangement by an anonymous composer of one of Mozart’s best-loved compositions, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra,  here stripped to its harmonic essentials for performance by string sextet.

Tackling this unusual composition were members of the Sona String Quartet, consisting of four former members of the New World Symphony who now work in the Miami Music Project, a co-sponsor of the festival. Joining them were the violist John T. Posadas and the double bassist Brian Powell.

Shrinking a Mozart concerto to chamber music dimensions is not that unusual, the composer himself having arranged some of his piano concertos for performance with string quartet. The textures were pretty thin in spots, particularly the grand first-movement orchestral passages. The wind section was missed, especially in such great moments as the return of the orchestra after the second movement cadenza. And by bouncing the original violin and viola solo music among five musicians, the work lost the tension, clarity and conflict of the original duo-concerto format. There were also repeated intonation problems, an issue that cropped up throughout the entire concert.

But violinist Aleksandr Zhuk’s effortless, sparkling Mozart style went a long way toward helping you forget the reduced musical forces. Violist Yael Hyken brought crisp, accurate, tonally rich playing to her part. Powell’s bass playing sufficed to produce rich, symphonic textures to many passages, without overwhelming the other instruments. And the ensemble made up in high spirits what it might have lacked in technical polish and musical firepower.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’s 1920 Concertino for String Quartet, an eerie work that is all rhythmic drive and unearthly harmonies. The work had been commissioned by the first violinist of the Flonzaley String Quartet, and Stravinsky gives a prominent and demanding part to the first violin. Zhuk handled the part with great success, sailing through the doubled notes, rapid passages and other challenges without apparent difficulty. The quartet played the work as a burst of propulsive force that gave a high-energy opening to the concert.

Another unusual work on the program was the String Quartet in A Major, Op. 4, by the Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky, who lived from 1871 to 1942. He straddled the Romantic and modern periods, having been a protégé of Brahms and a teacher of Schoenberg. Because he was Jewish, his music was banned by the Nazis.

The quartet inhabits the rhetorical and harmonic world of Brahms, although textures are richer and harmonies show a bit more late-Romanticism. Of all the movement, the first was the most impressive, both as music and as a performance. The quartet brought a plush tone to soaring, melodic passages and taut accuracy to tense, quiet sections.

The 19th season of the Mainly Mozart Festival has been an eventful one because of the festival’s move from a hotel meeting room to the high-ceilinged, acoustically vibrant and aesthetically convivial Coral Gables Museum. By all accounts this has been a highly popular and successful change, and it makes the festival an event to look forward to next summer.

Posted in Performances

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Mon Jun 4, 2012
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