North Shore Chamber Music Festival delivers gripping Shostakovich and ebullient Brahms

Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 2:42 pm

By Kyle MacMillan

The Pacifica Quartet performed Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 Friday night at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Northbrook.

In his introductory remarks Friday evening, artistic director Vadim Gluzman promised a concert that would cover the virtual gamut of human emotions, and that is exactly what the North Shore Chamber Music Festival delivered.

The violinist and his wife, pianist Angela Yoffe – both internationally known musicians – founded this three-day event last year in Northbrook, where they have resided for ten years, and, by all appearances, it is flourishing. It has already received the well-deserved imprimatur of WFMT-FM, which aired live broadcasts of two of its concerts at the Village Presbyterian Church, including Friday night’s program, and is recording a third for later presentation.

The key to any festival is artistic quality, and this entrepreneurial couple has drawn on their connections in the music world to bring in an assortment of top-notch artists, starting with the Pacifica String Quartet.

This superb ensemble turned in a gritty, gripping performance Friday that captured the raw power and blunt-edged honesty of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110. The Pacifica is in the midst of recording all fifteen of the composer’s works in this form, and its commitment to and insight into this amazing set of compositions was obvious. This was intense, all-in playing, especially the quartet’s breathless, thrillingly dangerous take on the manic second movement, which seemed poised to careen out of control at any second.

With that piece anchoring the first half, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio in B minor, Op. 8, culminated the second half, with an ebullient interpretation featuring Gluzman, pianist Adam Neiman and cellist Mark Kosower.

One of the joys of festivals like this is the chance to hear musicians who don’t normally perform together. But the danger in such on-the-spot groupings is that the musical personalities might not fit together or there isn’t sufficient rehearsal time for the ensemble to gel.

But neither one proved to be a problem here. These three well-matched musicians sounded like they had performed together for years, all ably handling the not inconsiderable demands that this chamber masterwork puts on each. Gluzman delivered his characteristic facility and flair on violin, and Neiman proved to be a strong anchor at the keyboard. Kosower, who took over as principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra in 2009, was right home in this intimate setting, delivering spirited playing with an appealingly resonant, silken tone.

Rather than devote one concert to any one instrumental combination, the North Shore Festival has wisely chosen to change the groupings from selection to selection, allowing for more varied and, in some cases, less frequently heard repertoire.

So, along with the two trios and quartet elsewhere on the program, the second half opened with a short, light-hearted duo – Moz-Art for Two Violins, by Alfred Schnittke, a 20th-century composer who remains under-appreciated. The work, one of several that he wrote over a decade and half with the same title, builds on a rediscovered Mozart fragment (K.416d) using Schnittke’s trademark assemblage approach, which humorously combines and sometimes clashes a range of styles and sounds.

Gluzman’s extroverted musical style and boundless technique was an ideal fit for this showy and deceptively difficult piece. Though a bit more restrained, Sibbi Bernhardsson, the Pacifica’s second violinist, more than held his own.

The evening’s only disappointment came at the beginning – an underwhelming version of Franz Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock, D. 965. Despite solid performances by clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein and Yoffe, soprano Hyunah Yu never got far enough inside the emotionally layered world of this famed art song trio.

The festival concludes 7:30 p.m. Saturday with Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat, Golijov’s Tenebrae, Franck’s Piano Quintet and tangos by Piazzolla.

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