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Borromeo Quartet and Wu Han, Library of Congress

Borromeo String Quartet, photo by Liz Linder
Borromeo String Quartet, photo by Liz Linder
The Borromeo Quartet closed the Library of Congress's season of free concerts on Friday night, in a concert that also featured pianist Wu Han. The presence of the latter explained the appearance in the audience of Condoleeza Rice. The U.S. Secretary of State is an accomplished amateur pianist, who reportedly coaches occasionally with Wu Han. The concert opened with a lengthy presentation involving James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and Susan Vita, the new Chief of the Library's Music Division. The Library took possession of a newly donated instrument, the "Baron Vitta" Guarneri del Gesù, the instrument made by the master craftsman in the 1730s from the same piece of wood as the "Kreisler" Guarneri, already owned by the Library. The "Baron Vitta" has been donated by the estate of the violinist Szymon Goldberg, on the condition that it be played. The Library of Congress loaned the instrument, on the spot, to Nicholas Kitchen, the first violinist of the Borromeo Quartet, who studied with Szymon Goldberg at the Curtis Institute.

Library of Congress, 2006-07:

Beaux Arts Trio (Jens F. Laurson, October 11, 2006)

Mandelring Quartet (JFL, October 13, 2006)

Montage Music Society (Charles T. Downey, October 18, 2006)

Chanticleer (Washington Post, October 30, 2006)

Chamber Music of Elliot Schwartz (Washington Post, November 3, 2006)

Music from the Bard Festival (Washington Post, November 18, 2006)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (CTD, December 7, 2006)

Steven Isserlis and Friends (Washington Post, December 15, 2006)

Ensō Quartet (CTD, December 18, 2006)

Yuri Bashmet and Wu Man (JFL, January 24, 2007)

Robert Mann and Friends (Washington Post, February 16, 2007)

Venice Baroque Orchestra (February 21, 2007)

Hantaï Brothers and Friends (Michael Lodico, February 23, 2007)

Artis-Quartett Wien (CTD, February 28, 2007)

Aron Quartett (CTD, March 2, 2007)

Camerata Ireland and Barry Douglas (CTD, March 23, 2007)

Jerusalem Quartet (JFL, April 11, 2007)

András Schiff and Miklós Perényi (Washington Post, April 18, 2007)

Euclid Quartet and Degas Quartet (Washington Post, April 20, 2007)

American Chamber Players (Washington Post, May 4, 2007)

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Cyrilla Barr, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music
This is the sort of program that makes one proud of the Library of Congress: all pieces from the 20th century, including a quartet commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who also endowed the auditorium that bears her name at the Library of Congress. Stravinsky's Concertino for String Quartet (1920) opened the concert, beginning in a raucous barbaro style with a clear awareness of the shifting meters and a sort of jazzy delight in the syncopated patterns. A performance alternately gutsy and ethereal, it also gave us the chance to hear Nicholas Kitchen's new violin, in a well-played multistop solo passage in the slow section.

The last time we heard Bartók's fifth quartet was in a fabulous concert by the Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress in 2003. It is one of the more accessible of the six quartets, in terms of the level of dissonance, although the predominance of chiasmus forms -- mirror shapes, like the cricket trills that open and close the second movement -- gives it some depth, too. The Borromeo realized a good contrast between the two opening themes, a repeated-note primitivist figure and a slower motif handed around the instruments polyphonically. The composer's autograph score, now in the Library's collection, was on display in a case in the entrance hall, open to the first page and showing, in Bartók's neat, pointed hand, the jagged opening theme. The third movement, based on Bulgarian folk dance, was charmingly buoyant.

The high point of the concert came after intermission, when Wu Han joined the Borromeo Quartet for one of the monuments of 20th-century chamber music, Shostakovich's G minor piano quintet, op. 57. The last time we reviewed this marvelous piece, it was at the end of the Emerson Quartet's half-cycle of DSCH quartets earlier this year. That performance's weak link was in the piano part, which was not at all an issue here. Wu Han, the wife and recital partner of cellist David Finckel, was faced with a small challenge when she took the stage. The setup crew had put up the lid of the piano without folding back the part nearest to the performer. One watched with uneasiness as the devoted page turner, Elmer Booze, put down the huge lid, put it in the right position, and hoisted it back up. Fortunately, no one came to harm.

Wu Han's typical concert attire consists of large, colorful capes. This time, instead of the image of Frida Kahlo she has worn before, Han's cape featured, if my eyes do not deceive me, the reproductive viscera on some of the plates of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. Han opened the quintet with an excellent introductory passage and then helped shape an intriguing performance in spite of a couple missed octaves here and there. The devastating second movement, a muted Fuga, was so intensely sorrowful with its plangent, additive subject. The scherzo was an exultant romp, and in another extended monologue for the first violin in the fourth movement, the newly christened "Goldberg-Baron Vitta" Guarneri del Gesù sounded great. The encore performance of the scherzo was a welcome treat.

This is the standard of concert one expects from the Library of Congress, and the nearly full auditorium was a sign of the popularity of serious programming. By my count, there were 20 21 interesting concerts on the series this season, many of which Ionarts reviewed. True, this is fewer concerts than the previous season (25) but about the same as two seasons ago (21). The other twelve concerts on this year's schedule were concessions to various popular music styles but were not set apart in a separate group as they have been in previous seasons. It is perfectly appropriate for the Library of Congress to champion various kinds of music, but as someone who really cares only for classical concerts, I hope that the mixture of genres in the schedule does not mean that fewer concerts like this one will be in our future.


Garth Trinkl said...

"By my count, there were 20 interesting concerts on the series this season, many of which Ionarts reviewed." (Charles)

Charles, while I deeply share some of your concerns about trends in Library of Congress classical music concert programming, I count 24 concerts from 2006-07 which could broadly be considered 'classical music'; (including programs mixing American classical music and roots of American classical music). Have you excluded from your list the Chanticleer, Cantus, and Nathaniel Dett Chorale concerts -- all chamber choral concerts -- as well as the Women Composers Saturday noon concert?

While I do indeed miss the days when the Juilliard SQ and the Beaux Art Trio offered Library of Congress audiences (and radio audiences!) superb overviews of the classical chamber literature, with each program containing one modern or American classical work (with only rare all-Carter or all-Cage evenings, which are similar, in my view, to the contemporary arts fetes sometimes programmed by the NGA), I would not want a Library of Congress that programmed only Bach, Wagner, and Mahler.

(And I am somewhat glad that the Library's Music Division has moved beyond its theme of "I Hear America Singing.")

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, thanks for adding your opinion. The 20 concerts I thought made the mark are listed in the table. Chanticleer is on there, but not the Cantus or Nathaniel Dett Chorale concerts, and not the afternoon concert.

Garth Trinkl said...

"By my count, there were 20 ... (CTD)

Thanks, Charles. Mini-critic and I count 21 concerts which you found interesting (your sidebar, plus the Borromeo Quartet and Wu Han).

Like you, I question the appropriateness (if not necessarily the 'musical quality') of up to 12 performances on this past year's Concerts from the LC series.

I think that I understand and respect, however, the reasoning behind the Library of Congress Music Division's inclusion of at least 6 of those 12.

I too hope that the LC Administration seriously rethinks its evening concert programming.
I agree with you that classical music values, European, American, and Asian, are now being seriously compromised.

Thanks again for the superb reviewing.

Charles T. Downey said...

OK, OK, 21. Although, if we do not count the Jerusalem Quartet concert, cut short by a fire alarm, we are back to 20...

Just sayin'.