Mendelssohn provides the highlight in Winter Chamber Music Festival opener

Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Thanks to Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Blair Milton and Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, the rite of winter is here once again with the Winter Chamber Music Festival, which opened its 17th season Friday night. (Though with unseasonable temperatures in the 50s it felt anything like January on the North Shore.)

The leadoff program at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston had a certain appositive symmetry with the chronology moving back in time as the number of players increased for each work.

There is likely no greater example of musical precocity than Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet, composed at age 16. Even more than his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which would follow a year later, Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings remains an astounding achievement, crafted with confidence and audacity, brilliantly laid out for eight players and chockablock with indelible melodies. Even Mozart had written nothing on a comparable level at such an early age.

The exhilarating performance that capped Friday’s opening program certainly launched this year’s festival in stirring style. Of course, having an all-CSO ensemble didn’t hurt (violinists Qing Hou, Lei Hou, Ni Mei and Blair Milton; violists Lawrence Neuman and Yukiko Ogura; and cellists Kenneth Olsen and Brant Taylor). One usually experiences these gifted players as members of a larger collective, so it was a double pleasure to enjoy their superb musicianship individually in a more intimate milieu.

The first violin part is a flashy near-concertante role and was assumed by Qing Hou with immense flair and facility. Her tone may not be large, but Hou’s playing was unfailingly elegant, nimble and spot-on technically. Her colleagues were equally impressive as Mendelssohn’s vein of thematic riches was tossed among and between the eight voices with corporate tonal gleam and fine agility.

The program opened with Ravel’s Piano Trio, one of the French composer’s finest and most characteristic works, performed by the Evanston Chamber Ensemble. The performance got off to a shaky start with a rather literal approach to the opening Modere and some less-than-precise intonation from violinist Blair Milton. The ensuing Pantoume likewise felt too softly focused and would have benefited from more astringent bite.

The performance, however, captured the pensive, inward expression of the Passacaile evocatively with some lovely burnished playing from cellist Stephen Balderston and Milton, and was rounded off with a vital and energetic account of the finale. Pianist Andrea Swan’s playing was sensitive and refined throughout.

The evening’s wild card—or perhaps not-so-wild card—was Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. Inevitably referred to as “autumnal,” this late work for clarinet and string quartet breathes an air of relaxed contentment with moments of virtuosity spicing the prevailing introspection.

The performance by clarinetist Steven Cohen and the Lincoln String Quartet (violinists Lei Hou and Qing Hou, violist Neuman and cellist Balderston) was sensitive and technically fluent but never quite seemed to gel as a finished performance. Cohen was a worthy protagonist and there was much expressive playing by the Hou sisters (Lei Ho, in the first chair, playing with tender delicacy).

But there is more depth and variety in this music than was conveyed Friday night. Cohen made little of the fiery gypsy episode at the center of the Andante, and that lack of crucial contrast made for a somewhat over-relaxed reading. The easy-going third movement came off well, yet the closing set of variations really needs a more dynamic  and characterful approach to make an impact.

The Winter Chamber Music Festival continues 3 p.m. Sunday with Ravel’s Violin Sonata, Dvorak’s String Quintet No. 2 aand Adolphe Blanc’s Septet.

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