Chamber Music Society opens season with a lively Mendelssohnian road trip

Wed Oct 19, 2016 at 2:36 pm
Gilbert Kalish, Lisette Oropesa, and David Shifrin at the season-opening concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Tristan Cook

Gilbert Kalish, Lisette Oropesa, and David Shifrin at the season-opening concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Tristan Cook

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center opened its 2016-17 season at Alice Tully Hall Tuesday night with a program that featured lively performances amid a somewhat baffling overall theme.

Billed as “Travels with Mendelssohn,” the concert seemed at first to be offering music the young composer might have heard on his Grand Tour of 1829-32, which took him from Scotland to Naples, with London, Paris, Rome, and the Swiss Alps in between. And he might very well have caught a Haydn symphony or two while in London, where the Austrian master’s music remained all the rage even in 1830, four decades after his visit there. 

However, it’s unlikely Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was in Paris in 1915 for the premiere of Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, which closed Tuesday’s program. So the program note by CMS artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han, referred instead to this and future concerts as “opportunities to immerse yourselves…in the major cultures which so influenced Mendelssohn’s supreme intellect and artistry.”

In other words, this season the Chamber Music Society plans to perform music from various countries in Europe.

Having taken in this news flash, one could sit back and appreciate the program items on their own merits. A Haydn symphony was indeed there, No. 94 in G major (“Surprise”), in an arrangement for string quartet, flute, and piano by J.P. Salomon, the violinist and impresario who brought Haydn to London in the 1790s.

In the pre-gramophone era, arrangements for the home-music market were the main means of dissemination for symphonic works—profitable for the composer (one hopes) and certainly preferable to not hearing the music at all.  But despite Salomon’s canny reduction (including a flute for extra sparkle on top) and an enthusiastic performance by violinists Erin Keefe and Danbi Um, violist Richard O’Neill, cellist Mihai Marica, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, and pianist Michael Brown, one couldn’t help thinking how much Haydn’s symphonies depend for their effect on the composer’s skill at wielding all the colors of the orchestra.

Haydn’s quartets and other original chamber works are full of dialogue and contrapuntal wit.  A symphony, however, was a different animal, a spectacle painted in broader strokes, and in this faithful arrangement one missed the snap and crackle of real chamber music.

That said, there must have been some proficient violinists in English homes during the 1790s, since Salomon didn’t simplify the blazing scales and arpeggios of the symphony’s first violin part one bit in the arrangement. Violinist Keefe dispatched them with élan.

Three familiar songs by Mendelssohn himself followed. In “Wanderlied,” “Auf Flügeln des Gesänges,” and “Suleika,” soprano Lisette Oropesa’s clear, agile, well-placed voice easily projected this composer’s distinctive brand of submerged passion, and pianist Gilbert Kalish subtly rendered his busy accompaniments.

Oropesa’s pinpoint intonation rang like a silver bell through Mendelssohn’s euphonious harmonies. A delighted audience rewarded the pair with vigorous applause.

Mendelssohn’s teachers warned him against venturing into Romanticism’s darker psychological regions, as Schubert did for example, and this injunction seemed to suit the fastidious young composer just fine. Yet there Schubert was on Tuesday’s program, albeit in one of his upbeat numbers, “Die Hirt auf dem Felsen” (The Shepherd on the Rock.)

A generation gap seemed to open in the piece’s early pages, with Oropesa’s bright, youthful voice a mismatch for David Shifrin’s foggy, creamy clarinet. In fact, at times the veteran artists Shifrin and Kalish gave the impression of having a delicious conversation between themselves about matters the young wouldn’t understand.

The soprano took charge in the piece’s mournful minor-key section, however, and delivered the vocal pyrotechnics of the finale in style. At the close, she bowed not just to the audience but to her two senior collaborators, who left the stage after her with arms around each others’ backs, no doubt moistening a few eyes out in the house.

Matters took a didactic turn in the second half as, remembering its stated mission, the program turned to music of the Renaissance master of sacred choral music, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), whose works Mendelssohn did indeed study during his long sojourn in Rome.

A string quartet consisting of violinists Um and Keefe, violist O’Neill, and cellist David Finckel played the brief Sanctus from Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi Munera, following up with an item not listed in the program, Mendelssohn’s Fugue in E-flat major, Op. 81, No. 4.

Palestrina’s pure counterpoint sounded a little lost when pulled out of its vocal, ecclesiastical context and played by stringed instruments with vibrato, but Mendelssohn’s contrapuntal piece showed a lesson well learned, and the point was made.

The piano was Ravel’s own instrument, and it sets the tone in his Piano Trio. Pianist Brown, having been asked only to plunk along, continuo-style, in the Haydn arrangement, showed what he could do in the trio’s first movement, caressing the opening phrases, eliciting an answer in kind from violinist Keefe and cellist Marica in silky octaves (wide-spaced fifteenths, actually).

The scherzo-like Pantoum movement was as lively and jazzy as the first movement was rapt, the strings skipping and swooping like swallows while Brown’s dancing staccato and sliding glissandi would have done Mr. Bojangles proud.

The Passacaille, Ravel’s wartime appropriation of (and tribute to) a form associated with the German J.S. Bach, should be the expressive climax of the work.  On Tuesday, however, Brown’s bland chord voicing and weak cantabile were not up to the job, and the three players sagged when they could have soared.

As a result, the brief, furious finale didn’t have the desired cathartic effect, despite an energetic, proficient performance by all involved.  No matter—on an opening night marked by speeches and an award ceremony asserting the continued vitality of chamber music, the audience responded to these gifted millennial-generation artists with long, grateful applause.

The next program of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will be “The Emerson at Forty” with the Emerson String Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Sunday at Alice Tully Hall.; (212) 875-5788.

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