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Festival Strings Lucerne at National Gallery of Art

Festival Strings Lucerne
Festival Strings Lucerne
The unquestionable quality of the Festival Strings Lucerne chamber orchestra’s free Sunday performance at the National Gallery of Art made for a memorable musical experience. Combining the soothing timbre of sixteen stringed instruments – unencumbered by winds, brass or percussion – with the uniquely wet acoustic of NGA’s West Garden Court allowed Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia for Strings No. 9 in C Major (“Swiss”) to soar.

As it was written when Mendelssohn was only fourteen, one may initially write off the work as being overly Classical, formal, and having a “cuckoo” motif. However, beyond the first movement, Mendelssohn offers a canvas of distinctive material that is continually developed. The 52-year-old ensemble conducted by Artistic Director Achim Fiedler especially cherished the second-movement Andante with a perfect, wafty tempo and the conveyance of endless lines (never individual notes) in the movement’s first section, for violins only. The cleverly contrasting second section for bass, celli, and violas contained gushing suspensions and counterpoint so strict Bach would have approved; the work continually looks forward and backward. The statuesque, yet free composure and frequent eye contact between ensemble members contributed to the overall sense that there was nowhere else in the world the musicians wanted to be. The audience was further convinced of the musicians’ genuine enthusiasm when ensemble members began to vigorously “whoohoo” concertmaster Daniel Dodd’s fun performance of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, arranged for strings by Caspar Diethelm.

Dodd’s Stradivari “ex Rudolf Baumbartner” instrument from 1717 had a sweet, focused sound nearly able to equal the lyricism of the human voice. Dodd’s wide ranges of expressivity and dynamics were welcome and made up for any issues with harmonics in the Sarasate. The audience and ensemble coaxed an intense encore out of Dodd in Ysaye’s Ballade, which wanders through violin techniques and styles ranging from Franck-like harmonic language and lyricism to neo-Classical material.

The second half of the program began with stellen, a new work for 14 stringed instruments by Dieter Ammann (b. 1962), which is based on the flowing development of contrasting ideas. Techniques of bridge and bass smacking (making the bass a type of drum) helped maintain coherence in the overall balance of the work, where contrasting material by ensemble sections created an intriguing perpetual movement while always being tidy.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Festival Strings Lucerne (Washington Post, October 21)
Brahms’s Quintet for Strings No. 2 in G major, op. 111 (1890), arranged by Artistic Director Achim Fiedler, was divine. The first movement (Allegro non troppo, ma con brio) embodied everything the key of G major offers best: optimism, joy, hope, etc. The final movement was something of a Slavonic hoedown. Fiedler’s conducting drew minimal attention to himself, while focusing the energy of the ensemble without causing them stress. He also was able to extract a very rich bass sound from just three celli and a double-bass. Your reviewer’s sitting in the front row just two feet from the conductor also had the unintended consequence of exposing him to individual inconsistencies of the performers, in particular a back row second violinist who was never quite with everyone else.

Overall, the performance showcased a continental steadiness and composure one wishes to hear more of from American ensembles. This cool confidence and low-maintenance technical approach to music making is more sustainable for the performers and more likely to put an audience at ease. The Festival Strings Lucerne were proud of their performance; their audience was likewise proud to have been in attendance.

This Sunday's free concert at the National Gallery of Art will feature the superlative Wiener Klaviertrio (October 26, 6:30 pm). It is likely to be one of the best concerts of the museum's fall schedule.


Anonymous said...

Michael, your writing and reviews leave me with feelings of envy. I'm envious that I missed such a wonderful performance and I am envious of your ability to convey its richness in words.

I'm even envious that you inspire envy within me ;^)

Well done. You are deserving of every accolade.


Michael Lodico said...

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It was a nice concert

Rex Immensae Majestatis Chapman said...

Okay, Robert Battey simultaneous engages and disappoints my prurient instincts by noting that stellen is "designed to induce fornication." I come to ionarts, land of the unlimited word count, to find out more about whether this could possibly work, and here too I am disappointed. "Bass smacking" is as close as we've come.

I am very disappointed in the Internet right now.

Charles T. Downey said...

Hahahaha. Wait -- you do know that Battey actually wrote "forMication," right? I have no doubt that somewhere in the world there is someone who gets off on having ants in his pants, but I'd rather not think about it.

Rex Immensae Majestatis Chapman said...

Oof. I guess my eyes were doing some wishful editing as they read. Because it would be awesome if there was a classical piece designed to induce fornication! Seriously! Whether it worked or not, it would be cool to hear the attempt.

By the way, I am not required to register with any government authority when I move into a new neighborhood.