New World Symphony celebrates the sextet in chamber program

By David Fleshler

Strings sextets by Tchaikovsky and Brahms were performed by New World Symphony members Monday night.

The classic chamber ensemble may be the string quartet. But Brahms and Tchaikovsky, both masters of the symphony orchestra, seemed just as happy with larger forces at their command.

String sextets by both composers were on the program Monday evening, as members of the New World Symphony, along with alumni and guest musicians, presented a free streamed concert.

The performance was polished and assured, even under the merciless scrutiny of the microphones placed around the ensemble. Most successful was the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, where the musicians’ warm tones and adroit bowing brought out the work’s Mediterranean elegance.  

The Tchaikovsky sextet’s dark and dramatic opening—a curtain-raiser that contrasts sharply with the rest of the mostly sunny movements—came off as more insinuating than violent, more in keeping with the music that was to follow. First violinist Dylan Naroff brought a languid ardor to the ensuing theme. A relaxed, Italianate mood prevailed, as violas and violins traded a sighing, sensuous melody.

In the Adagio, violinist Naroff and cellist Ben Fried gave smoothly phrased accounts of the melody, bringing to it warmth without bathos, restraint without coldness. The opening of the Allegro moderato was marked by the rich viola playing of Emily Williams Gregg, who drew throaty sounds from the instrument’s lower depths. As the music lightened, the musicians bowed skillfully, tripping their bows across the strings to produce airy music that recalled Tchaikovsky’s ballets.

The last movement sounds more like the Souvenir de Moscow, with its galloping, Russian-tinged melodies. In the big cinematic theme, the musicians delivered, bringing cumulatively greater and intensity to each return of the melody.

The New World musicians were no less skillful in Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2, although the performance lacked some of the force and drama needed to express the stern dignity that’s part of the composer’s musical personality.

There was mystery and tension enough in the Brahms sextet’s brooding opening, one of those quiet passages that carries more power than many fortissimos. But particularly in climactic passages, the playing seemed too elegant and soft-edged to express the music’s craggy drama.

Glassy violin tones and spidery ascents in cello and viola marked the Scherzo. The musicians brought out the tension in this halting, enigmatic music, then broke the tension with a boisterous account of the ensuing country dance music.

In the slow movement, they played the opening with subtly  increasing intensity, increasing the tension as the harmonies became sharper and more complex. In the concluding Poco allegro, the playing was pointed and precise, notably in the fugal section, with the musicians deftly moving from cryptic soft passages to raucous bursts of energy.

The New World Symphony’s next streaming concert takes place 7:30 p.m. Saturday. 

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Tue Feb 2, 2021
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