North Shore Chamber Fest marks a decade with stylish and spirited Beethoven

Thu Jun 10, 2021 at 1:02 pm

By John von Rhein

The Ariel String Quartet performed Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet in C major Wednesday night at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Northbrook. Photo; NSCMF

There is no greater music than that of Beethoven to affirm the indomitability of the human spirit, not least at a time when the concert world ventures cautiously out of the darkness of lockdown into post-pandemic normalcy.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival recognized as much Wednesday evening at Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook, where ensemble regulars and guest musicians presented a Basically Beethoven program as the opening concert of the festival’s 10th anniversary season. 

The festival’s husband-and-wife administrators—violinist and artistic director Vadim Gluzman, and pianist and executive director Angela Yoffe—limited the free attendance to roughly 260 masked, socially distanced listeners (the church can hold up to 420).

Spontaneous applause erupted between movements, a sure indication that what the directors call “a festival by friends, for friends” is really and truly back in business. The program, like the two that follow this weekend, was live-streamed on the festival website and on the platform of its media partner The Violin Channel. 

To have survived, let alone thrived, for ten seasons and counting in the highly competitive realm of local chamber music is no mean feat. Gluzman and Yoffe are working diligently to maintain the festival as one of the essentials of the classical music scene; they must also be credited for upholding high standards of musicianship from season to season, mentoring deserving young musicians and enlarging the mix to include education and outreach.

The scourge of Covid-19 rained on the parades of countless musical groups last year when celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary would have been rife. Gluzman, Yoffe and friends anchored Wednesday’s kickoff with two stylistically complementary Beethoven works the festival would have presented last year at this time—the Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20; and the “Razumovsky” String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, no. 3.

The two instrumental ensembles did these masterpieces proud, nicely served by the warmly congenial church acoustic.

Beethoven’s C-Major Quartet (No. 9) is the most popular and arguably the greatest of his middle quartets. It drew a brilliant reading from the Ariel String Quartet, a group whose international bona fides have been firmly established in the Chicago area through previous festival appearances.  

If a rather more probing response to the enigmatic harmonies of the introduction to the “Razumovsky” (which recall Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet) was called for, the main body of the Allegro vivace was sustained at a judicious pace, brisk but not hectic, the individuality of Beethoven’s part-writing on full display.

The balance of violinists Alexandra Kazovsky and Gershon Gerchikov, violist Jan Gruning and cellist Amit Even-Tov was at all times sensitive, the intertwining lines of the slow movement full of nuanced shading. The foursome resisted the urge to push the grazioso minuet for superficial effect, and their vivacious sprint through the fugal finale brought the performance to a viscerally exciting close. 

If Gerchikov hadn’t told the audience that this reading marked the Ariel Quartet’s first public performance after 456 days of lockdown, one wouldn’t have guessed it from the aforementioned strengths. 

The six-movement Septet was Beethoven’s most popular work during his career, although he came to dislike it the more popular it became. Oddly enough, it is far too seldom heard in the concert hall and on recordings, so it was good to encounter it in a reading as alive to its open-hearted essence as the one given on Wednesday.

Violinist Vadim Gluzman and colleagues performed Beethoven’s Septet Wednesday night. Photo: Mark Hagland

Gluzman’s incisive yet sweet-toned virtuosity made him the primus inter pares among his well-matched ensemble partners (he tossed off his mini-cadenza in the finale with suitable flourish). The Adagio brought a graceful emphasis on the inherent cantabile elements, from clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg’s statement of the main theme through the seamless blending of voices that marked the remainder of the movement. 

The variations came off particularly well, with dialogues between strings (Gluzman, violist Atar Arad and cellist Mark Kosower) and winds (Shterenberg, bassoonist Catherine Chen and hornist Eric Reed) crackling with the rapid-fire rhythmic precision of a championship table-tennis match. The other movements were likewise strong on personality. (The assured double bassist Kurt Muroki completed the ensemble.)

The program began with violist Arad’s own brief Toccatina Alla Turk for violin and viola. Inspired by jazzman Dave Brubeck’s classic Blue Rondo a la Turk (a portion of which is quoted near the end), this chugging moto perpetuo sounded like something Bela Bartok might have written in homage to Paganini. The frisky imitative writing of Arad’s five-minute piece was nimbly dispatched by Lisa Shihoten on violin and the composer on viola.      

The 2021 North Shore Chamber Music Festival continues with concerts at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Village Presbyterian Church, 1300 Shermer Rd., Northbook.

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