October 20, 2016
Two extraordinary concerts on consecutive days by two local ensembles gave evidence that we truly are living in a golden age for chamber music in San Antonio. First came the Camerata San Antonio string quartet’s concert of Mozart’s three “Prussian” quartets, Oct. 16 in the concert hall at the University of the Incarnate Word. Then the Olmos Ensemble, joined by the gifted pianist John Novacek, gave brilliant performances of music by Czech and Hungarian composers, Oct. 17 in Laurel Heights United Methodist Church.
A quibble with the billing of the latter concert as an “Eastern European Spectacular”: It makes more sense, historically, to understand the Bohemia of Bohuslav Martinů and Zdeněk Fibich and the Hungary of Béla Bartók as components of Central Europe, along with Germany and Austria. Relegating them to “Eastern Europe” is an unfortunate relic of the Cold War.
The Central European orientation is especially prominent in the music of Fibich (1850-1900), represented here by his Quintet in D for clarinet (Ilya Shterenberg), horn (Adedeji Bailes Ogunfolu), violin (Eric Gratz), cello (Morgen Johnson) and piano (Mr. Novacek). One can hear the harmonic Wanderlust of Wagner in the serene largo, the optimistic energy of Mendelssohn in the sprightly scherzo. The opening and closing allegros are sunny and engagingly melodic. Often Fibich doesn't carry his melodic ideas very far, but a lyrical episode in the scherzo is an exception, with a nice long melody for the horn against a violin filligree. It’s a shame we don't get to hear Ms. Johnson’s gorgeous tone and Mr. Ogunfolu’s commanding style more often in chamber music; both are among the brightest lights among the San Antonio Symphony’s recent additions.
As a young man Martinů lived in Paris, where he absorbed avant-garde and international influences, and then fled to New York as the Nazis invaded France. He was living in the US when he composed his Quartet for oboe (Paul Lueders, superb as always), violin, cello and piano (1947). The style is a charming neoclassicism. The counterpoint is especially intricate in the fleet opening movement, which was executed with great élan and taut ensemble.
The concert opened with Bartok’s tough-minded Contrasts (1938) for violin, clarinet and piano, composed for the swing virtuoso Benny Goodman. Mr. Sherenberg showed more shapely elegance than moxie in the opening movement, but he opened up nicely in the finale. Mr. Gratz and Mr. Novacek played with consistent verve. Here, and throughout the concert, there seemed to be a strong chemical bond between Mr. Novacek and the other players.
Camerata’s concert was an early contribution to the forthcoming Mozart Festival, revolving around five San Antonio Symphony concerts this January and February. The “Prussian” quartets were Mozart’s last three in that form, and they reveal the full flowering of his mature harmonic complexity.
The performances were uncommonly robust, notable for aggressive dynamics, forceful accents and explosive staccato notes that might go against a common stereotype of Mozart's style, but which are fully justified by the scores. Matthew Zerweck (first violin) and Kenneth Freudigman (cello) favored the take-no-prisoners approach, though without compromising tonal beauty, while Anastasia Parker (second violin) and Emily Freudigman (viola) exercised a bit more restraint. The overall result was music that seemed very much of the present, and entirely consistent with what we know of Mozart’s personality.
Golden-age music making
Camerata San Antonio, Olmos Ensemble
Taking bows at the end of the Olmos Ensemble concert (above): Eric Gratz, Morgen Johnson, John Novacek, Ilya Shterenberg, Adedeji Bailes Ogunfolu. Below, Camerata San Antonio string quartet: Matthew Zerweck, Anastasia Parker, Emily Freudigman, Kenneth Freudigman.