Question. If you want to create a standard program of classical chamber music centered on a piano quartet, and you also want each member of the quartet to play exactly twice on the program, what are the possible ensembles? Assuming you choose not to feature works for solo strings, the first half would most likely consist of a sonata for violin, viola, or cello, with the other two instruments paired in a string duo.
Chestnut Hill Concerts opened its 42nd season, in the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, with an enjoyable evening of music centered on the Dvoràk Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 87, that was preceded by the Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in C Minor, Op. 32, No. 2, and the Duo for Viola and Cello by Walter Piston.
Violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan opened the event with the Piston Duo. Written in 1949, this infrequently played work was a refreshing start for a summer evening concert. The breathless first movement was performed with edgy rhythms and carefully controlled balance between the instruments. Both players had much more room on the quiet side of the dynamic spectrum that could have been explored to better shape the second movement, which seemed long, but the finale was given with stunning precision at a faster tempo than often played.
The remaining pair of musicians, violinist Harumi Rhodes and pianist Steven Beck, played the Beethoven C minor violin sonata to close the first half of the program. Rhodes was even able to energize the rests in the famous opening motive of this sonata, and she and Beck strove for an articulate opening movement. This is music that lives in its own compression, and it needs to be handled with skill or the music splinters. The sum of details in this performance allowed it to rage at all the right times.
Beck is a pianist who plays chamber music with the innate refinement of a string player. He specializes in clarity. I am now a Beck fan.
The finale of the C minor violin sonata was Beethoven's great essay on the augmented sixth sonority. Rhodes and Beck took the movement quickly and both smiled at the deflections and detours that Beethoven found. We smiled too.
After intermission the quartet took on the Dvoràk E-flat major piano quartet, a piece which seemed to capture the feel of the season; perfect for a summer evening in Old Saybrook.
Rhodes has a commanding musical presence and can communicate with a variety of subtle gestures that are better than those of many conductors. She kept the ensemble sharply focused and led them through the rich textures that characterize this work.
Joyful music is more challenging than one might imagine; it depends on timing much the same way that comedy does. But joy came across not only from within the music, but it also radiated from the care with which it was delivered. I have never learned so much from any single performance of this piece. Applause began to break out even before the final cadence was finished, and faithful in Old Saybrook gave the quartet a much deserved standing ovation.
The Chestnut Hill Concert Series continues at the "Kate" in Old Saybrook with performances on August 12, 19, and 26. For additional information, call (203) 245-4736 or visit this link.