North Shore Chamber Fest opens with an exhilarating mix

Thu Jun 05, 2014 at 1:57 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Anne Akiko Meyers  performed in the opening program of the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Wednesday night in Northbrook.
Anne Akiko Meyers performed in the opening program of the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Wednesday night in Northbrook.

Now in its fourth season, the North Shore Chamber Music Festival makes an inviting bridge between the close of Chicago’s music season and the summer weeks at Grant Park and Ravinia. Directed by the husband-and-wife team of violinist Vadim Gluzman and pianist Angela Yoffe, the festival engages top guest artists and offers an artful blend of familiar works and rarities in the superb acoustic of the Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook.

Wednesday’s opening program was another deftly judged mix, with music of Bach and Beethoven breezily commingling with Arvo Pärt and Max Bruch. Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers was a prominent guest, featured in three of the program’s four works.

The evening led off with Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with Meyers and Gluzman as solo protagonists. While polished and well played by both violinists, their styles didn’t always cohere, with Meyers’ robust approach and rich vibrato sounding slightly out of period next to Gluzman’s more idiomatic and affectionate playing. The New Generation Ensemble—despite the title, mostly professionals with a few violin students—accompanied solidly enough though a conductorial hand would have likely elicited greater detailing of balances and dynamics.

The string ensemble also provided backing for Arvo Pärt’s Passacaglia. Like his better-known Fratres, the work exists in different versions and was here performed in the Estonian composer’s arrangement for two violins, vibraphone and strings. The taut concentration of this concise miniature gets rather diluted when the violin line is shared between two players, yet Gluzman and Meyers brought the requisite lean spareness and bursts of virtuosic fire to Pärt’s arc-like structure.

Meyers was joined by cellist Wendy Warner and pianist Alessio Bax for Beethoven’s Trio No. 4 in B flat, Op. 11. The lively performance had great freshness and an appealing give-and-take spontaneity. Bax’s light and playful keyboard work was especially fine, fully in synch with the vivacious spirit of this early work. Warner spun a lovely rounded tone in the opening of the Adagio, which enjoyed rapt and closely attentive interaction among all three musicians. The sprightly main theme of the finale is taken from the popular air of a Joseph Weigl opera—the “street tune” of the “Gassenhauer” title. The players brought vivid characterization to Beethoven’s far-flung variations with Bax fully in synch with Beethoven’s quirky humor.

The festival’s finest moments often come with the rarities, and such was the case Wednesday with the evening’s finale, Max Bruch’s String Quintet.

One of his late chamber works, the String Quintet was completed in 1920, the year of Bruch’s death. Lost for decades, his String Quintet is a terrific work that deserves to be much better known. Far from manifesting any lessening of powers by the octogenarian German composer, the work could have hailed from his prime—finely crafted, well laid out for five voices, and plumbing a characteristic vein of dark-hued melody.

With its brilliant first-violin part, this work is tailor-made for Gluzman, who led a fizzing performance. All five players (violinists Gluzman and Danbi Um, violists Paul Neubauer and Rose Armbrust and cellist Ani Aznavoorian) dug into the stormy opening Allegro with driving intensity. Bruch’s age is belied by the youthful energy of the ensuing scherzo, and the rich, indelible theme of the Adagio was played with great tenderness and an alert yet supple ebb and flow.

The performance culminated in a thrilling finale with exhilarating playing and a clear infectious enjoyment by the smiling musicians in the final race to the coda, showcasing the collaborative spirit of great chamber music playing at its best.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Friday. The program will include Mozart’s Violin Sonata in F major, K.377/374e, and “Kegelstatt” Clarinet Trio, K.498; Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s Piano Quintet; and the Johann Strauss Jr./Schoenberg “Waltzes from the South.” There will also be a post-concert jazz offering with pianist-conductor Andrew Litton playing Oscar Peterson.

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