Finale of CMNW’s Tuesday night series is grand indeed

Shai Wosner
Oregon Music News

By Lorin Wilkerson

A sizable group of musicians wrapped up the Tuesday night series in Chamber Music Northwest’s 2011 Summer Festival at Catlin Gabel on July 19th in a concert entitled Romantic Odyssey. The fresh, energetic Miró String Quartet, pianist Shai Wosner, and hornist Julie Landsman of the Metropolitan Opera, were joined by festival regulars Theodore Arm (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola) and Fred Sherry (cello). They played a wide array of compositions ranging from an incomplete student work by Mahler to a brand-new commission by the great author, hornist, music historian and composer Gunther Schuller.

First up was the Mahler. His Quartet in A Minor for Piano and Strings was composed while he was still a teenage student at the Vienna Conservatory.  Wosner was joined by Arm, Neubauer and Sherry in this work,  which started out with a melancholy air that soon morphed into an energetic  rant and back again.  There was superb blend in this gorgeous bit of Romantic frippery, and true to his usual form Sherry always gave exactly what was wanted in exactly the right way, helped along by Wosner’s tight pulse in the oft Beethovenian piano part.

Schuller’s Quintet for Horn and Strings was up next.  This was the Pacific Northwest premier of this piece, which was commissioned jointly by CMNW, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the La Jolla Music Society.  The composer, now 86, is a veritable titan in all his fields, having received (amongst innumerable other accolades) Grammys in two categories, a Pulitzer, and a MacArthur foundation fellowship.  He was on hand to explain something of his creative process.  An accomplished horn player in jazz and classical idioms, he spoke of an early love for Mozart’s horn quintet K. 407.

“Now is my moment to pay tribute to Mozart and express my love for his music.  There are many references to Mozart,” he explained, despite Schuller’s very personal and idiosyncratic tonal language (atonalism is a word he eschews.)   He spoke of a desire to belong to the great past of classical music, rather than distinguish himself from it somehow, and offered some techniques to the audience on how to develop an appreciation for new and strange music.

Landsman was joined by the Miró Quartet, featuring Daniel Ching and Tereza Stanislav on violins, John Largess on viola and Joshua Gindele on cello. The work itself was inspired and fascinating, beginning with a rambling, oddly plaintive free-form melody from the horn, soon interrupted by a frantic homophonic pulsation from the strings.  Landsman was positively brilliant; true to the composer’s intention she never attempted to stand out as a soloist, yet was a true first among equals.  In the second movement, marked Lento, she played a threnody accompanied by gloriously haunting dissonances from the strings, using tense tremoli and weird harmonics the phrase ending with an appalling ejaculation from the horn and sudden silence.

The third movement was in the form of a Rondo, which was spritely in a sort of light-hearted and mocking way.  There were moments of almost accidental consonance, and strange, trumpet-like brayings and mute techniques from Landsman’s horn.  The composition and the performance both were first-rate, and all concerned received a long and well-deserved ovation afterward.

A drily sentimental Romance Oubliée (S 132) for violin and piano from Liszt’s later years opened the second half, with Arm playing violin and Wosner on the piano. It was truly touching, with long moments of solo violin and the piano coming in almost as an afterthought.  It was over so quickly one could scarcely be sure it was there in the first place; sort of a short but meaningful lied for the violin.

The finale was a titanic Quintet in A Major for Piano and Strings, Op. 81 by Dvorák.  The Miró Quartet and Wosner joined forces for this piece.  Throughout their playing was deservedly self-assured; their skills and familiarity with the work were such that it achieved that state of musical grace wherein the playing completely got out of the way, allowing the music to come through, almost as though it were being channeled.  It was never forced–there was an ease and an always purposeful flow to it, assisted in no small part by Wosner’s ceaseless sure-fire pulse.

The second movement Dumka: Andante con moto gave the impression of listening to a troupe of wandering folk musicians somewhere in the dark heart of Central Europe.  At times the strings played with an attack that bordered on the raw–perfect for the mood of that movement.  The finale was ferociously difficult and yet played at a fearless tempo, finishing the grandiose work still in posession of that self-assured air that made it seem like they were just rattling it off the top of their heads.

In all it was a spectacular night of chamber music featuring top-notch players, a night made even more special by the presence of such a distinguished gentleman as Gunther Schuller. It was an honor to hear the premier of his work.