Epic Brahms and an engaging premiere at North Shore Chamber Festival

Sat Jun 10, 2017 at 3:24 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Adam Neiman's Trio for violin, clarinet and piano had its world premiere at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Friday night in Northbrook.
Adam Neiman’s Trio for violin, clarinet and piano had its world premiere at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Friday night in Northbrook.

The centerpiece program of this year’s North Shore Chamber Music Festival was characteristic of the series’ melding of traditional cornerstones with offbeat items: in this case, two epic Brahms warhorses flanking a world premiere.

The latter work, unveiled Friday night at Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook, was Adam Neiman’s Trio for violin, clarinet, and piano, the first commissioned work by the festival.

In his introduction, pianist and composer Neiman said that it was “extremely intimidating” to share the program with two masterworks of Brahms. He said he tried to reflect Brahms’ “philosopher” and “gypsy” sides in his own compositional voice. Neiman added that his Trio is tonal, melodic and “episodic,” amusingly apologizing in advance for anyone who was looking forward to an atonal score.

Nieman’s Trio is indeed an engaging and approachable work. Skillfully crafted in a concise single movement of ten minutes, the composer packs a striking abundance of thematic riches into a short span.

Over a repeated-note motif for piano, the clarinet floats a lyrical, long-breathed melody; the violin soon joins in as the tempo accelerates and the music become more agitated. An even lusher second theme is stated in violin and passes to clarinet, building to an impassioned climax. A Euro cafe melody makes an appearance as well as a waltz-like iteration, skillfully developed and crafted between the three instruments with ease and all rounded off with the requisite bravura close.

One could hardly imagine a stronger sendoff for Neiman’s Trio than the refined and ardent performance served up by violinist Vadim Gluzman, pianist Angela Yoffe and clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg. It’s a rare music premiere that receives a standing ovation these days but the audience response was immediate and clearly genuine.

Late and early Brahms framed the Nieman premiere, with the Clarinet Quintet leading off the evening.

The clarinet is invariably primus inter pares in this work but Friday night’s performance by Shterenberg and the Escher String Quartet was scrupulously balanced between the five players, making for an uncommonly fresh and compelling view. The autumnal introspection was there but Shterenberg’s lean tone, along with the Escher’s acutely focused sonority brought a taut, contemporary bite to music that can stand some sharpened edges.

The playing of Adam Barnett-Hart was especially impressive. At a spacious yet sustained tempo, the Escher first violinist brought hushed intimacy to the Adagio’s introspection; Shterenberg likewise explored a finely shaded balance between gypsy and klezmer in the middle section. Perhaps there was a fractional loss of tension and momentum in the very broad approach to the quintet’s final bars but the preceding variations were vividly characterized by all five players.

Young Brahms closed the evening with the Piano Quartet in G minor, written at age 28 and as quirky, dynamic and youthfully rambunctious a work as the Clarinet Quintet is inward and melancholy.

Festival artistic director Vadim Gluzman has a kind of genius for assembling chamber teams. As is so often the case at this festival, the performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet was thrilling and uninhibited in its virtuosity, as delivered by violinist Gluzman, violist Paul Neubauer, Escher cellist Brook Speltz and pianist Neiman.

The surging drama of the opening movement was as idiomatic and convincing as the piquant light-footed charm of the Intermezzo with a magical diminuendo at the coda. The strings brought a rich, warm-hearted response to the Andante’s soaring main theme; the quirky central march began with apt insouciance by Nieman segueing into ensuing swagger by all.

The performance was rounded off with a fizzing account of the insistent gypsy finale. In the unbridled heat of the moment, a little polish may have been sacrificed along the way but with playing this exhilarating—and especially dazzling keyboard work by Neiman—no one was complaining.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival concludes 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook. The mostly Mozart program includes the Rondo for Violin, Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola and the Symphony No. 29, along with Coventry: A Meditation for Strings by Vilem Tausky. nscmf.org

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