Copland and Stravinsky prove amiable companions in Chamber Music Society program

Mon Apr 20, 2015 at 2:51 pm
The Amphion String Quartet performed in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's concert Sunday afternoon.

The Amphion String Quartet performed in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s concert Sunday night.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center put together another rich and unusual program on Sunday evening. A full concert of chamber music by Stravinsky and Copland might seem difficult to conceive, but Sunday’s selections and the performances they received proved that the pickings among those composers’ oeuvres are more robust than they might appear on the surface.

The only disappointment of the night came in the opening work. Cellist Mihai Marica of the Amphion String Quartet and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott opened with Stravinsky’s 1933 arrangement of his Suite Italienne. While there was much intelligent playing throughout the suite, it was dogged by consistent problems. Foremost of these was Marica’s intonation—particularly on double-stops, his pitch was distractingly unsure, marring an otherwise solid technique. McDermott’s playing was generally limpid, though she set a tempo for the last movement that was a little too morose for a “Menuetto.”

Marica was joined by his Amphion colleagues (violinists David Southorn and Katie Hyun and violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin) and together the four brought gleaming sound to two pieces by Copland for string quartet. The thick texture of his Lento molto was realized with crackling warmth, the music unfolding like layers of cloth. Fiery passion enlivened the following Rondino.

Rounding out the first half was a thrilling rendition of the trio arrangement of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. The playing of McDermott, violinist Kristin Lee, and clarinetist David Shifrin was brusque, and all the more potent for it: their rough approach was equally effective at evoking the rustic charm of the opening march and the raucous menace of the Devil’s Dance. Best of all was the fourth excerpt, a trio of dances. The tango’s sultry heat seemed to invite summer into Alice Tully Hall before giving way to the cheeky waltz. Lee slathered the ragtime in schmaltz, playing with an idiomatic relish that earned this selection its own round of applause.

In Copland’s Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, Lee showed herself to be an artist of both flair and sensitivity.  As in Stravinsky’s tango, Copland’s Nocturne called to mind a hot summer night, and McDermott milked the bluesy smoke of the piano chords, while we got a stronger sense of the beauty of Lee’s tone. When she played with a mute at the opening, the sound was gauzy and distant, as though coming in through a window. The velvet that she wove throughout the Nocturne contrasted perfectly with the wicked playfulness of the Ukelele Serenade.

Stravinsky’s Concertino for String Quartet was a jarring switch, seeming unsettling after the cheeky glint of the Copland duos. The Amphion members kept up a keen intensity that persisted until the very end, the tension of the piece remaining even as the final chord dissipated.

McDermott and Shifrin joined Amphion in closing the program with Copland’s Sextet from 1937. Bright energy characterized the first movement, followed by blissful calm in the second and buzzing activity in the finale. The sextet itself didn’t seem like the ravishing finisher we’d earned after such an energetic, fast-paced concert (ending with the Copland duos or L’Histoire might have yielded better results), but it’s hard to fault the musicians for wanting to close the program with a large ensemble piece.

At intermission CMS’s co-artistic director Wu Han announced, with the infectious enthusiasm that is her trademark, a new series of summer concerts to be held in Alice Tully Hall. Thank goodness. CMS is looking more and more like the most vital of Lincoln Center’s august tenants, and the organization’s presence will be a welcome addition to New York’s sparse summer calendar.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s next regular concert will be “An Evening with Brahms” 7:30 p.m. April 24 in Alice Tully Hall.

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