As Ravinia goes pop, summer chamber music thrives elsewhere on North Shore

Sat Jun 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat was the closing work on Friday night’s program at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival.

On the same evening that the Ravinia Festival opened its season with a pop show, the inaugural season of the North Shore Chamber Music Festival was blessedly presenting its second evening of bona fide chamber music in the same vicinity.

Indeed, with summer classical music in Chicago left largely to outdoor music festivals that spotlight orchestral repertoire, the idea of an indoor summer chamber music festival fills a real void.

The theme of Friday evening’s concert at Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook was, as violinist and festival artistic director Vadim Gluzman put it, “the art of the slow movement” — works that feature “slow movements so rapturous in their beauty that they are a miracle.”

Ordinarily, performing Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 in F minor (BWV 1056) on the modern piano with a contingent of young string players would not seem like the ideal elements for a promising performance.

But pianist William Wolfram led the New Generation Ensemble from the piano with spirit and aplomb, and with immense attention to transparency, articulation and nuance. The Largo was indeed the highlight, the performance never over-sentimentalizing the music and maintaining momentum throughout.

The Mozart Clarinet Quintet is the Holy Grail of intimate clarinet pieces, often imitated, but none as “pure and pristine,” as clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg noted in his introduction.

Shterenberg played the work with as much heart and finesse as could wish, his breath control and steady timbre bordering on otherworldly, with stalwart support from violinists Ilya Kaler and Lisa Shihoten, violist Rose Armbrust and cellist Ani Aznavoorian. Here, too, the Larghetto was also the highlight, poignant while maintaining Mozartean charm yet never allowed to sag under its own weight.

It added a special touch to the evening to include a Chicago premiere, a work that is a slow movement all unto itself — Lera Auerbach’s Postscriptum for piano trio with Gluzman, Gluzman’s wife and festival executive director Angela Yoffe, on piano, and cellist Wendy Warner.

The seven-minute work begins conventionally enough with a vibrant Romantic melody that gradually morphs into post-Expressionism with dive-bombing glissandi and intervals that clash with the original statement. It is a fun and clever work with a touch of whimsy reminiscent of William Bolcom’s shorter pieces.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the finale, a performance of the Schumann Piano Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 47, with pianist Wolfram, violinist Gluzman, violist Atar Arad and cellist Warner.

Arad gave an eloquent account of what makes Schumann’s chamber music unique, noting the way Schumann snatched chamber music “from the salons of the rich and into public concert halls” and the way that he placed “melodic lines away from the safety of the bar and the beat,” giving the music an excitement and “unsettling” quality.

So true, but rarely is this quartet executed with the energy and finesse that this ensemble accomplished in a remarkable performance of a still-underrated masterpiece.

The musicians presented Schumann’s Piano Quartet as an original and distinctive work in its own right, rather than merely as watered-down Beethoven. Particularly fascinating is that cellist Warner actually followed Schumann’s instructions to retune her instrument for the third movement, allowing the low B flat that Schumann uses as a pedal point in the Andante cantabile to be heard in its proper register. (Players often transpose the note, which loses the resonance effect Schumann intended.)

The evening concluded with a question-and answer-session with the young performers asking the veterans questions about everything from practicing to their favorite composers and pieces of music and hobbies, with many fascinating insights offered.

If there is a better way to attract more performers and audiences to chamber music than having top colleagues interact with young musicians as they did here, I cannot imagine it. May this be the first of many years of the North Shore Chamber Music Festival.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival concludes 7:30 p.m. Saturday with a program of Milhaud, Prokofiev and Brahms at Village Presbyterian Church, 1300 Shermer Rd., Northbrook. There will also be a 6 p.m. preconcert lecture and demonstration, “The Golden Era of the Violin” by the Stradivari Society of Chicago.; 847-370-3984.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “As Ravinia goes pop, summer chamber music thrives elsewhere on North Shore”

  1. Posted Jun 11, 2011 at 5:55 pm by Patti Lee-Hoffmann

    The music was transcendant AND I don’t remember ever laughing so much at a concert — the guileless questions (“how would you describe music to aliens?”) and the earnest and revealing answers.

  2. Posted Jun 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm by HudSonic

    Hello Dennis,

    I wonder why you make up something and then write an article to support your myth making. This new festival may indeed provide pleasure to local north shore people. I hope it does. But the premier chamber music venue, The Martin Theater, at Ravinia is still the place to be for summer chamber music.

    That is because the world’s top playas appear there and also because the 800 seat Martin is a first class acoustic to hear smaller ensembles.

    So in your article above you suggest that other festivals host their chamber music events out doors. I don’t know of any festival in Chicago hosting chamber music outdoors except maybe at a picnic. You’ve set up a false notion and then written an article about a competitor that does nothing different.

    I noticed it and I thought I would write with my exception to your odd notions.

    with thanks,
    Hudson Fair

  3. Posted Jun 16, 2011 at 10:58 pm by Dennis Polkow

    The review clearly stated that “summer classical music in Chicago [is] left largely to outdoor music festivals that spotlight orchestral repertoire.” And that is indeed the case: the Grant Park Music Festival is mostly outdoors, except an occasional concert at Harris Theater, and at the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — the centerpiece of that festival — presents most of its performances outdoors as well. More to the point, the CSO, which used to open the Ravinia season, is not performing there until July, nearly a month into the Ravinia season which is instead mostly spotlighting pop acts during June, including the weekend of the North Shore Chamber Music Festival. As such, the NSCMF offered a genuine alternative for those in the same vicinity that wanted to hear classical music. There is one Martin Theatre Ravinia chamber music concert for the entire month of June and that is late in the month.

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