North Shore Chamber Fest opens new fall series with a Jewish musical feast

Fri Sep 11, 2020 at 12:00 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Vadim Gluzman and Angela Yoffee performed at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival concert Thursday night at PianoForte. Photo: Daniel Odroniec

As with all classical music organizations in Chicago and across the country, the North Shore Chamber Music Festival was dealt a severe blow by Covid-19. The festival was to celebrate its 10th anniversary in June but all three concerts were cancelled due to the pandemic and subsequent shutdown.

Happily, the Northbrook-based entity—headed by violinist Vadim Gluzman and pianist Angela Yoffee—has met the current challenge in a bold and ambitious way. Rather than waiting for next summer to resume their events, the married couple is launching onstage/offstage—a 2020-21 series of five concerts performed live to a small audience and simultaneously live-streamed at their website. 

The first of two programs this week, titled “Jewish Kaleidoscope,” took place Thursday night at PianoForte and offered the vital music-making and relaxed informal presentation familiar from the festival’s June events over the past decade.

With socially distanced seating in the small venue, the room was “full” with about two-dozen audience members (25% of the usual capacity). Patron temperatures were taken at the door and audience masking was required; the musicians elected to eschew both masks and social distancing, though the latter would have been impossible anyway on PianoForte’s tiny stage.The livestream was accomplished unobtrusively by single videographer at the back of the room.

If there was sometimes a lightness of being in a program of seven short works, many inhabiting similar terrain, the polish and dedication of the performances more than made up the balance. Initial fortissimos were overwhelming in the very live space but the musicians quickly adjusted and took the dynamics down a notch. 

But most of all it was glorious to experience live classical music again in person after an absence of six months. The high level of execution and committed performances were icing on the cake.

Darius Milhaud’s Suite kicked off the unbroken 90-minute program in lively fashion. In his introduction, Gluzman aptly painted the scene as music suited to a Parisian cafe circa 1930. With clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg and pianist Yoffe, the trio brought out the effervescent humor and joie de vivre of this score delightfully.

The most substantial item on the program was Baal Shem by Ernest Bloch. One of many works by the Swiss-American composer that reflected his Jewish heritage, Baal Shem was inspired by the title Polish rabbi and mystic of the 18th century. Though less often heard today, Bloch’s piece was a fiddle mainstay for much of the 20th century.

The Israeli violinist showed complete identification in these “Three Pictures of Chassidic Life,” Gluzman bringing rich, dark tone and febrile expression to the inward soliloquy of the opening “Vidui” (Contrition). He deftly balanced the silk and sinew with sensitivity and as well as emotional intensity in the rhapsodic “Nigun” as well as delivering the festive full-blooded rejoicing in the “Simchas Torah” finale. Angela Yoffe’s keyboard work was on the same elevated level throughout.

Another highlight of the evening came with Maurice Ravel’s Two Hebrew Melodies. In this rarely heard work, Mark Kosower, principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra, explored the opening “Kaddish” with a depth of refined feeling and moving gravitas set against pianist William Wolfram’s widely spaced chords.

Lera Auerbach is one of our finest living composers and it’s unfortunate that more Chicago musical organizations haven’t seen fit to bring her music to local audiences. Gluzman and Yoffe have been consistent advocates however, and Thursday night Gluzman performed Auerbach’s T’filah (Prayer) for solo violin, which was written for him. The concise work shows the compelling individuality Auerbach can bring to a concise work of just a few minutes. Playing from his manuscript score, Gluzman brought a searching and improvisatory quality to this introspective work, with a finely nuanced array of dynamic expression.

Gluzman (with Yoffee) displayed his virtuosic chops in Figaro, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s wry and fizzing concert paraphrase on Rossini’s “Largo al factotum” from Barber of Seville. And Shterenberg’s sassy and sinuous clarinet made such a successful case for Gershwin’s Three Preludes (backed by Wolfram), one wondered why this inimitable music isn’t played on the wind instrument more often.

Vadim Gluzman, Angela Yoffee, Mark Kosower and Ilya Shterenberg performed the world premiere of Avner Dorman’s Dancing with the Torah at Mount Meron Thursday night. Photo: Daniel Odroniec

The evening concluded with a world premiere by Avner Dorman, whose percussion concerto Eternal Rhythm had its U.S premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last October.

The Israeli composer’s Dancing with the Torah at Mount Meron was inspired by the painting of the same name by his compatriot Reuven Rubin. Originally written for four-hand piano, Thursday night marked the premiere of a new version for quartet, commissioned by the festival. 

Diorman’s brief work may not explore great depths, with its lilting dance-like theme accelerating into a bravura frenzy. But with Yoffe, Gluzman, Shterenberg and Kosower giving their considerable all, Dorman’s showpiece closed the program with fiery exhilaration.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival’s onstage/offstage series continues 7:30 p.m. Friday at PianoForte. The program includes Clara Schumann’s Three Romances, Robert Schumann’s Three Piano Pieces and Brahms’ Piano Trio in B flat major. House tickets are available as well as for live-streaming at home.

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