North Shore Chamber Festival opens in stellar fashion

Thu Jun 08, 2017 at 11:10 am

By Tim Sawyier

The Escher String Quartet performed at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Wednesday night in Northbrook. Photo: Sophie Zhal
The Escher String Quartet performed at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Wednesday night in Northbrook. Photo: Sophie Zhal

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival (NSCMF) opened its seventh season in spectacular fashion Wednesday night at the Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook. The husband-and-wife team of violinist Vadim Gluzman and pianist Angela Yoffe—festival artistic and executive directors, respectively—have again assembled a stellar roster of artists, who delivered rarified performances on opening night.

After introductory welcoming remarks from Gluzman and Yoffe, the New York-based Escher Quartet kicked off the musical proceedings with Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 18 No. 1. It is difficult to imagine a better performance of this early Beethoven work than the one the Escher musicians provided on Wednesday.

Violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe, and cellist Brook Speltz cultivate a supple, inviting sonority and possess a substantial palette of colors and textures, all of which they deploy to great effect.

The opening Allegro con brio breathed in the Escher’s performance, the players conveying the movement’s classical sensibilities as well as its modern edge. It takes immense effort to make such music sound so effortless, yet the Escher achieved just that.

The ensuing Adagio was suffused with pathos, its ubiquitous heartbeat accompaniment sounding fragile yet inexorable. A perhaps apocryphal anecdote suggests the inspiration of this movement was the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet, and the Escher traversed a wide emotional spectrum that paralleled that fateful sequence. The Scherzo went with poise, and its off-kilter rhythms bounced beguilingly. The magnanimous closing Allegro was fleet and incisive, its spiraling runs articulately flicked off by the Escher members.

The second half was devoted to Stravinsky’s complete L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) in its original chamber version. David Danzmayr, former Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra music director, conducted the performance with a clear, noninterventionist approach—a judicious tack, as the instrumental playing was of such high caliber the conductor frankly did not need to do much more than beat time.

Gluzman’s violin contributions were abundantly characterful and dynamic throughout, particularly in the “Trois Danses.” The playing of CSO principals Alexander Hanna (bass) and Cynthia Yeh (percussion) were also unflappably solid.

CSO principal bassoonist Keith Buncke’s lyrical playing was sublimely haunting, and his technical work dazzling; principal clarinet of the San Antonio Symphony Ilya Shterenberg (a NSCMF regular) also played with distinction.

The playing of Canadian Brass trumpeter Caleb Hudson was pristine and lustrous, nowhere more so than in the “Marche Royale,” and he achieved a burnished blend with Cleveland Orchestra assistant principal trombone Shachar Israel, who also made inspired contributions.

Henry Fogel, former president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, took the role of narrator in a committed, capable fashion, escorting the work’s drama through its many ludicrous twists. Patrick Regner made an endearingly fresh-faced soldier and Ray Frewen a persuasively scheming Devil, though the portrayals of their individual characters were more compelling than their interactions, which came off as stilted and inorganic.

The only problematic aspects of the performance were a function of L’Histoire itself. There are several reasons the instrumental suites of the work are more popular than the complete original score. Stravinsky’s neo-classical music completely outshines the inane libretto, which in the English translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black takes the form of grating rhymed couplets that sound like primitive Dr. Seuss. Given this state of affairs, the full performance duration of around an hour is easily too long by half. If the players are anything less than outstanding it can become an ordeal, but with this lineup of first-class musicians the NSCMF had no such worries.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook. The program comprises Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet and Piano Quartet in G Minor, and the world premiere of Adam Neiman’s Trio for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano.


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