May 5, 2019
Last week brought two chamber music concerts with very different points of view, but equivalent pleasures.
On April 28, the internationally rcelebrated Finckel/Han/Setzer Trio visited Temple Beth-El, courtesy of the San Antonio Chamber Music Society, to play three major landmarks of the piano trio repertoire – by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn. Then on May 4, Agarita, a locally based piano quartet that had its debut just last fall, played a concert with a more contemporary flavor in McAllister Auditorium.
Agarita seems intent on rethinking the chamber music concert. Rather than the traditional format of three or four major works, played complete, Agarita has broken its programs into a half-dozen or more shorter works, or single movements from larger ones. Its concerts are fairly short, an hour or not much longer, and without an intermission. For this concert, the musicians clustered at stage right and ceded most of the space to dancer Sofie Bertolini, a Ballet San Antonio soloist, who choreographed or improvised movement to much of the music.
The program included two works – well, one and four-fifths – by living American composers. The concert opened with the first three (of five) movements from Stephen Hartke’s King of the Sun, a 1988 work commissioned by Chamber Music America for the Los Angeles Piano Quartet; the fifth movement closed the concert.
Mr. Hartke’s music is, well, bizarre – in a good way, of course. Deep in its core, his singular idiom draws on medieval precedents, but prickly, sometimes violently slashing modern effects are scrawled across the surface, and obsessive repetitions somehow connect those disparate ideas. The second movement, “Dutch Interior,” is highly changeable, featuring elaborate solos here, intricate counterpoint there, and sometimes each of the instruments seems to occupy its own world. The third movement, “Dancer Listening to the Organ in a Gothic Cathedral,” opens with almost brutal fortissimo chords in the low register, but then the strings enter with quieter lyrical material. It’s all very strange and even shocking at times, but compelling.
Daniel Temkin’s brief (about five minutes) Together, We was originally composed in 2017 for harp and flute; here it was given in an arrangement for piano (Daniel Anastasio) and violin (Sarah Silver Manzke). Like the poetry of Langston Hughes, which the composer claims as a direct influence on the piece, the music is lean, direct, convicted and beautiful.
Slightly off the beaten path was Paul Hindemith’s almost jolly Scherzo for viola (Marisa Bushman) and cello (Ignacio Gallego). France was represented by two movements from Debussy’s Piano Trio in G – the Andante unleashed particularly beautiful melodic statements on cello and violin – and “Le Gibet” (the gallows) from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, played with affecting flexibility by Mr. Anastasio. From Spain came Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole for piano and cello.
Ms. Bertolini’s contributions were beautifully executed, attentive to the music, and highly varied in style, from pure classical ballet to strictly modern, and sometimes combinations of the two. She proved an adept quick-change artist, appearing by turns in a traditional tutu, a black leotard, several fluid frocks, and a few other variations.
The members of the Finckel-Han-Setzer Trio come with top-flight credentials. Violinist Philip Setzer was (and still is) a founding member of the vaunted Emerson Sting Quartet. Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel serve jointly as artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center while maintaining busy international careers singly and as a duo.
Their program was focused and serious – Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat, Op. 1, No. 1; Dmitri Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E minor; and Felix Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 2 in C minor.
In the three quick movements of the Beethoven, Ms. Han’s assertive, vivacious musicianship came to the fore, while the string players seemed to recede with a more relaxed approach – one can imagine that the first performances of this piece might have taken a similar course, with Beethoven himself at the piano. The adagio brought out supple songfulness all around.
The Shostakovich E minor trio is an emotional powerhouse. Its second movement, an allegro con brio, stings and bites, like a whip. The third opens with a disconsolate largo – made even more heavy-hearted in this performance by a slightly tremulous quality in the violin and cello lines.
But the most remarkable performance of the afternoon came in the Mendelssohn C-minor trio, a late work and one that, like the A-minor string quartet. Here, execution fit the score with no space left over. The opening and closing allegros were big and muscular, fleet and taut. In the lovely andante, the line was lovingly shaped. The scherzo was a veritable froth, weightless and spritzy.
There was no encore, but, after the Mendelssohn, none was needed.
Old school, new school
Dancer Sofie Bertolini performed with the Agarita piano quartet in McAllister Auditorium.
Finckel-Han-Setzer Trio; Agarita
The Finckel-Han-Setzer Trio: Philip Setzer (violin), Wu Han (piano), and David Finckel (cello). Below: Agarita pianist Daniel Anastasio speaks to the audience while colleagues Sarah Silver Manzke (violin), Marisa Bushman (viola), and Ignacio Gallego (cello) wait to begin their concert.