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Musicians from Marlboro I

The Freer Gallery’s presentation of musicians from Marlboro is a mutually beneficial affair that gives young talent in classical music an opportunity to present the fruits of their summer’s labor and affords audiences across the U.S. the opportunity to witness great music-making of (potential) future stars. Since its inception the Musicians at Marlboro series (since 1992 at the Freer) has brought the likes of Murray Perahia, Shlomo Mintz, Andras Schiff… and even if none of the players this Wednesday shall ever reach the levels of some of their more illustrious predecessors, it didn’t make the experience less worth hearing.

I remember a few excellent concerts in that series two years ago and regret not having gone to any last year. I was glad to be back, though – not the least because the program offered the Lyric Suite of Berg’s and the String Sextet in A Major, op. 48, by Dvořák. Before it, we got to endure listen to Beethoven’s String Trio, op. 9, no. 2. It is a fair distance from genius, and whether in mediocre performance or well performed (as on this occasion) it never excites me and always tempts slumber in me.

Harumi Rhodes, truly gorgeous as she may be, was irritating to look at for a while – so oddly animated were her gestures and mimicry. She looked like an uppity marionette with stilted facial expressions that seemed the cartoon versions of their realistic counterpart. That her tone was viola-like at first and not always perfectly in pitch made warming up to her performance a slow process. (Given her father, Samuel, being the Juilliard String Quartet’s violist it tempted with a joke about bad violin playing running in the family – but her consequent playing in the Berg nipped that in the bud.) Burchard Tang (viola) and Soo Bae (cello) were the collaborators in the Beethoven; both seemed stoic in comparison to Ms. Rhodes.

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A. Berg, Lyric Suite, Arditti String Quartet
In the Berg suite the playing (if not the visual) was much improved; this time Ida Levin (2nd violin), Jonathan Vinocour (viola), and Priscilla Lee (cello) joined New England Conservatory and Juilliard graduate Rhodes. When the more difficult works on a program get the best performances I always suspect the necessary concentration and additional practice to be behind that. Whether that’s indeed the reason or not doesn’t matter – it was a delight to hear the four young musicians dig in as they did. The violins stood out for particular good playing, including some ghostly sul ponticello spiccato passages, detailed emotional nuances, and ethereal moods. The Lyric Suite is perhaps the best example that composing by numbers can create musical results. There are probably more extramusical considerations in the work than purely musical ones (based on Schoenberg’s serial technique and laced with autobiographical allusions to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and Berg’s affair with her) and yet the result could not sound less academic. If only Berg had lived longer and been more prolific, he could have had an impact on music more profound than Schoenberg himself, in part because he applied the principles of Schoenberg far more effectively to music. Berg was a better serial composer than his teacher, perhaps because he could apply it in a laissez-faire manner that the rules’ creator could not. All idle speculation – but fun, nonetheless. The result in this case, at any rate, is one of the best string quartets ever written.

Appreciative of the Berg as the audience was, they reacted better yet to the Dvořák sextet, for which all six artists were united, every string instrument doubled up. I am and will remain spoiled by the phenomenal viola sound that Liz Freivogel of the Jupiter quartet delivered (alone and with together with the Yoda of violists, Roger Tapping) - but even so, Burchard Tang made some very seductive noises on his instrument as did Jonathan Vinocour, who had not particularly impressed me until then. The work is not the quintessentially lush Romanticism that the Brahms sextet or the Dohnanyi C Major serenade is, but still a very enjoyable way to keep six string players busy for half an hour.