June 3, 2014
It was a grand weekend for strings, with a top-notch concert by Camerata San Antonio on Sunday and high-intensity playing by a string quartet from the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio to complement a radio drama by Ronald Moore on Saturday.
Camerata closed its season in Christ Episcopal Church with welcome out-of-the way works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Kenji Bunch and a standard work, Felix Mendelssohn’s exuberant Octet for strings in a performance that coursed with youthful energy.
Vaughan Williams was represented by his early Nocturne and Scherzo for string quintet. Well, not so much represented as disguised: This music is far from Vaughan Williams’s familiar mature style. The Nocturne shows a little influence from Edward Elgar and a lot from Arnold Schoenberg’s expressionist period. The Scherzo leans more toward Elgar, plus a few special effects that seemed out of place — high harmonics and playing on the bridge.
Bunch is an American (a native of Portland, Oregon), and his music is decisively so. The five movements of his “String Circle” (2005) for string quintet draw on American folk idioms, passed through a sophisticated, often witty modernist lens. Several of the movements are high-spirited and rhythmically enterprising. The middle and longest of them is a prayerful, deeply affecting essay based on “Wayfaring Stranger.” The performances were first-class all around, but special notice goes to Matthew Zerweck, who played first violin in all three works. In the Mendelssohn, which assigns the first violin the clear leadership role, Mr. Zerweck surpassed his usual high standard of assertiveness, accuracy and rhythmic acuity. This wasn’t just remarkably able musicianship; it was unrestrained, compelling magic.
His partners were violinists Anastasia Storer, Eric Siu and Sayaka Okada; violists Marisa Bushman and Emily Freudigman; and cellists Ken Freudigman and Ryan Murphy.
Saturday’s performance, in a jam-packed Gallery Nord, was a collaboration between the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio and Attic Rep, one of the city’s best theater companies.
Ronald Moore is well known to San Antonians as a former announcer for classical radio station KPAC-FM, but he’s also a playwright and novelist. His radio drama “Elizaveta” is a fiction based on a historical moment — the Soviet Union in the 1970s, when dissident writers distributed their officially censored works through underground networks in typewritten copies, known collectively (so to speak) as samizdat.
The play opens in 1990 in the Vermont home of an eminent and self-absorbed Russian writer, Sergei (David Connelly), who had defected to the West some years earlier. Flashbacks take us back to the 1970s, when a feisty typist, Elizaveta (Bethany Bohall), began working for Sergei and other writers. A chance event leads the Soviet police lieutenant Kirill (an unctuous Byrd Bonner) to hound Elizaveta for information about Sergei’s forthcoming novel. Elizaveta, who makes no effort to disguise her contempt for Kirill, dies in police custody. We also meet Sergei’s first wife, Lina (Gloria Sanchez), his friend Constantine (Rick Frederick) and Elizaveta’s friend Larissa (Renée Garvens).
The main dynamic in the play is between the contrasting moral statures and fates of Sergei and Elizaveta — the celebrity who sacrificed nothing and the anonymous typist who sacrificed all. The script is not all clouds of gray, however. Mr. Moore also channels the mordent Russian wit to provide plenty of laugh lines, and his characters are well drawn — both by Mr. Moore’s dialogue and, in this performance, by the excellent cast.
Though Mr.Moore intended “Elizaveta” as a radio play, its flashback structure and scenic possibilities would seem to give it potential for a screenplay. The performance on Saturday was a little more than a static reading: Director Roberto Prestigiacomo had the cast moving and gesturing as much as the tight playing space allowed. Jeremiah Teutsch provided suitable sound effects.
The musical component comprised short works and excerpts that were more or less appropriate to the dramatic moment. The strongest connection came in the second half, when Kirill’s interrogation of Elizaveta was interrupted by the slashing, violent chords that opened the fourth movement from Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8.
Music also was drawn from string quartets by Wilhelm Stenhammar and Anton Webern, all played with polish and emotional depth by violinists Francisco Fullana and Rebecca Jackson, violist Matthew Diekman and cellist Charles Asch. The savage second movement from the Shostakovich quartet got a particularly fine, on-the-edge account. Pianist Silvia Santinelli wanted more ferocity in an excerpt from Sergei Prokofiev’s Toccata, but her flexibility in the “Chopin” movement from Robert Schuman’s “Carnaval” was pleasing, and she was a supportive partner to Ms. Jackson’s splendid work in the closer, Claude Debussy’s waltz La plus que lente.
Ronald MoorePhoto: Dan Skinner, Texas Public Radio