North Shore Chamber Festival opens with music old and new

Thu Jun 09, 2016 at 1:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Ariel Quartet performed music of Tchaikovsky at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Wednesday night in Northbrook.
The Ariel Quartet performed music of Tchaikovsky at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Wednesday night in Northbrook.

The transition from the end of the fall season to summer’s musical events also ushers in the North Shore Chamber Music Festival. Helmed by the married team of violinist Vadim Gluzman and pianist Angela Yoffe, the festival opened its sixth season with a well-balanced program Wednesday night at the Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook.

While chamber cornerstones make up much of the festival’s bill of fare, the lineup is spiced by selective contemporary works. Gluzman and Yoffee have a long association with music of Lera Auerbach and they opened Wednesday’s concert with her Violin Sonata No. 2.

As indicated by the work’s title, “September 11,” the sonata was written in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, begun by Auerbach the very next day. As Gluzman noted, it’s a telling sign of our unsettled times that the world heard news of a new terrorist incident in Tel Aviv earlier Wednesday.

Auerbach is among our most gifted and prolific voices, and the Russian-American composer’s sonata is a powerful and compelling work. In a single movement of about 14 minutes, Auerbach starkly paints the intensity and conflicting emotions of that day. Agitated violin figures and crashing piano chords alternate with plaintive sections. The high, fragile violin tendrils and spare, broken lyricism of the piano create an atmosphere of subdued melancholy. The violent opening music returns and the work ends on a note of numbed desolation.

Gluzman and Yoffee have recorded Auerbach’s sonata and their experience showed in the passion, emotional intensity, and eloquence of their deeply felt performance.

Following up on their highly praised festival debut last year, the Ariel String Quartet returned for an encore appearance, this time in music of Tchaikovsky.

For all its familiarity, Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 is not an easy work to pull off, and the Ariel Quartet members showed clear sympathy with the idiom. Playing with a warm yet acutely focused corporate sonority, the musicians conveyed the rustic folk quality and brought a kinetic dynamism to the faster sections, led by the ensemble’s fiery first violinist, Alexandra Kazovsky.

Perhaps the celebrated theme of the Andante cantabile might have benefited from a simpler, more intimate approach. But otherwise the performance was polished and exceptional, with the finale thrown off at a crackling pace that made for a thrilling coda.

Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major closed the evening. In his introduction, pianist William Wolfram called the quintet “a perfect work. You couldn’t change or take away a single note.” Indeed, even by Dvorak’s standard, the quintet is chock full of melodic richness with dramatic depth and Bohemian flavor, laid out with fine opportunities for all five musicians.

As rendered by pianist Wolfram, violinists Gluzman and Danbi Um, violist Atar Arad and cellist Wendy Warner, the performance was one of distinction and full-blooded commitment by all involved. Gluzman’s sweet-toned violin consistently conveyed the lyric charm of Dvorak’s melodies without ever turning saccharine. Wolfram’s poetic keyboard playing and Warner’s sensitive cello work were on the same level. The Dumka movement was especially glorious; with attentive, close-knit playing of the variations, each musician brought expressive distinction and personality to their moment in the sun.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Friday with Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Schubert’s String Quintet and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet.; 847-370-3984.

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