Rohnert Park, pop. 40,000, is a pleasant rural community some 3,000
miles east of Carnegie Hall. It is here that Jeffrey Kahane has created
an annual chamber-music series (as part of the Green Music Festival)
that could be comfortably at home in any metropolis.
The opening concert of the sixth season, on Friday, featured a rich
program, played by extraordinary musicians in a way that was hot, to
a fault, sizzling, and brilliant. The audience, filling Sonoma State
University's Person Theater in larger numbers than in previous years,
responded with equal fervor to everything, caught up in the event, losing
some perspective in the end.
Kahane opened the program (and the season) pointedly with a contemporary
work, a special one, before getting to Brahms and Mendelssohn. He
selected well: Osvaldo Golijov's "Last Round" is simply one of the most
exciting and satisfying works in new music. As played by the St. Lawrence
String Quartet, an ad-hoc quartet composed of violinists Chee-Yun and
Lindsay Deutsch, violist Aloysia Friedman and cellist Alisa Weilerstein,
plus Stephen Tramontozzi (contrabass), this tribute to Astor Piazzolla
first rocked, then enchanted the hall.
Written in 1996, to mark the death of passionate amateur pugilist
Piazzolla four years before, "Last Round" opens with "Movido, urgente,"
a headlong rush into a sonic explosion imbued by the spirit, if not the
actual presence, of the bandoneon - Golijov refraining from the use of
the instrument because, he has said, "after Piazzolla, it's just not to
be done." With all but the cellos standing, these always-physical musicians
threw themselves into the massive, dark-hued, at times crying music, the
complex, syncopated waves hitting home as authentically native to Bartok's
Hungary, Janacek's Moravia, and Stravinsky's Russia as to Piazzolla's
The second movement. "Lentissimo," is a beautiful adagio, a series of
simple, heartfelt variations on a Carlos Gardel song, weaving a seductive
symphonic spell around the theme of "Muertes del angel."
For the rest of the concert, the distracting stage mannerisms of two
otherwise splendid musicians - St. Lawrence's high-kickin' Geoff Nuttall
and the eye-rolling, wildly grimacing Weilerstein - were difficult not
to notice, but the sweep of "Last Round" was such that nothing mattered,
not even the St. Lawrence's excessively cute dark glasses for the curtain
calls... of which there were four, unusual at chamber music.
There was a fascinating transition to Brahms' desperately passionate
serenade to Clara Schumann, the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60.
Kahane's thundering opening chords on the piano were answered by the
excited but close-order harmonies from Chee-Yun, Weilerstein, and the
exceptional violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama (the California-born daughter
of a Zimbabwean father and a Japanese mother).
The Brahms Allegro and Scherzo continued, as it were, the spirit of
Golijov's "Movido, urgente," and then the Andante picked up on the sound
and quiet beauty of Golijov's Lentissimo, parallel structures across
different worlds, more than a century apart, creating magic in the hall.
Seemingly unnoticed by the excited audience, the concert's concluding
work, the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat major, was a well-performed
miscalculation. The Golijov-Brahms equation was carried too far with a
"hot," dramatic reading of the work that - like so much of Mendelssohn's
music - requires more light than heat, more butterfly wings than the
lion's roar. The Allegro was simply too heavy, the Andante actually
showed some sawing away at the strings, there was a partially successful
attempt to capture the fleeting grace of the Scherzo, but the Presto
ranged with too many boots in the peasants' dance to an unseemly race
to the finish line.
And yet, individual performances shined even as the ensemble didn't reach
the heights scaled in the first two pieces. St. Lawrence second violinist
Barry Shiffman, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Chris Costanza
delivered solid value, as usual. In the Mendelssohn, and unfailingly
throughout the evening, Chee-Yun played with focus and grace, providing
a point of reference to the evening's brilliant debut, that of 19-year-old
Not so much senior in years as having the advantage of a long and
distinguished career, Chee-Yun's security and mastery "comes naturally,"
but the tall and thin Deutsch (reportedly a devoted handball player!)
surprised and delighted with her equal, mannerism-free concentration,
verging on serenity, showing uncanny maturity even during the most
physical and demanding passages.
Kahane - whose playing in the Brahms was remarkable even against what
one expects from this prodigious pianist - has been long advocating both
Golijov and Deutsch. Friday night served as a big "I told you so!" for
Kahane. By the way, the departing music director of the Santa Rosa
Symphony (for Denver) promised he will stay with Green Music Festival,
continuing with this spectacular chamber-music series.
The 2005 series continues Sunday, with Chee-Yun and Deutsch in the
Prokofiev C Major Sonata for Two Violins, the St. Lawrence and Ngwenyama
in the Mozart String Quintet in D Major, and Chee-Yun, Weilerstein, and
pianist Jon Kimura Parker in Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor.
On July 12, Kahane and Parker will give a two-piano recital, of Schubert,
Gershwin and Rachmaninoff; on July 14, Kahane and Ngwenyama will play
the Schumann "Fairy Tales for Viola and Piano," cellist Peter Wyrick
joins Deutsch for the Kodaly Duo, Op. 7, Dvorak's Piano Quartet in
E-flat Major ending the series, with Deutsch, Ngwenyama, Wyrick and
Kahane. A new piano series follows, Kahane performing Bach's "Goldberg
Variations" on July 17, Fred Hersch playing contemporary jazz on July
23, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba presenting Afro-Cuban Jazz on July 30. See
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