Winter Chamber Festival closes with warm-hearted Schubert and Boccherini

Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 7:31 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

It wasn’t literally a breath of fresh air, though remnants of January’s snowstorms had all but disappeared. But the concert that closed the 14th annual edition of Northwestern University’s Winter Chamber Music Festival nevertheless prompted thoughts of spring. Featuring strings quartets by Boccherini and Stravinsky as well as Schubert’s expansive Octet for strings and winds, it brimmed with the kind of optimism and zest that can make even the most winter-weary Chicagoan truly believe that warm breezes may be just around the corner.

The audience that almost filled Pick-Staiger’s 1,300 seats Sunday night heard locally based talent led by the Lincoln String Quartet: Lei Hou and Qing Hou, violins; violist Lawrence Neuman and cellist Stephen Balderston, all current or former members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Joining them for the Schubert Octet were NU faculty members Peter Lloyd, bass; Steven Cohen, clarinet; Christopher Millard, bassoon, and Gail Williams, horn.

Founded in 1997—the year the festival began—the Lincoln Quartet played with the heady mixture of cohesiveness and spontaneity that arises when musicians know one another well. There was an undercurrent of sweet merriment in Boccherini’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 58, No. 3, a work from 1799. The first movement’s stately opening was certainly given its due, and the final movement had its moments of elegantly paced good manners. But the quartet dug into Boccherini’s long, singing melodies and jaunty, peasant-like dances with youthful high spirits.

Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for string quartet, which had their world premiere in Chicago in 1915, are pungent little morsels by a composer experimenting with spare but densely packed musical textures. The opening Dance was wonderfully off-kilter, its dissonant harmonies and spiky rhythms erupting like sprays of aural champagne. In the movement titled Eccentric, the musicians played with ferocious intensity. Hurling Stravinsky’s astringent melodic fragments among themselves, melting into brief laments, they created a mesmerizing, at times tension-filled, musical conversation.

Approximately one hour long, Schubert’s Octet in F Major is as expansive as Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet is tiny. But the sense of vibrant conversation among good friends suffused both.

The Lincoln Quartet’s tone has a mellow, rounded undercurrent, and their guest double bass and wind players brought an equally smooth, warm sound to the Octet. Millard’s bassoon was particularly memorable, quietly emerging in melodies full of smoky depth. Williams, who retired from the CSO in 1998 after 19 years, played with a burnished golden tone. Schubert’s leisurely, curving melodies as well as his bouncy dances were in very good hands.

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