By Roger Emanuels
SEASON EIGHT of Music in May (Mim) opened on Friday night to a grateful audience eager to hear definitive performances of chamber music monuments. The seven musicians of Mim are top players who perform in many leading orchestras and ensembles throughout the country. Featured guest this year was violinist Martin Beaver who played with the Tokyo String Quartet in the final eleven years of its existence.
This modest annual mini-festival delivered two concerts in the resonant acoustics of Peace United Church in Santa Cruz. The Friday program presented three masterpieces of the 18th and 19th centuries: works by JS Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn. It was a bold choice given that these compositions are well-known and have been recorded by leading artists. The result was not a safe review of timeless and familiar music, but rather offered engaging and fresh interpretations.
Originally written for the harpsichord in 1741, the Goldberg Variations by Bach has been transcribed for a variety of instruments, including solo guitar, brass ensemble (Canadian Brass) and string trio. With a simple three-part texture, the music translates easily to violin, viola and cello, performed here by Rebecca Jackson, Alexandra Leem and Jonah Kim. The trio made excellent use of the acoustics of the church, blending their sound with a minimum of vibrato and impeccable intonation. Because of the simple harmony of the original, the instruments at times played quietly, creating an intimate and gentle sound, though rhythmic energy came through easily. From the original Aria and 30 Variations, this program offered a brief but appropriate selection of the Aria and Variations 1 through 5. Each instrument could be heard clearly, preserving the beauty of the music.
Mozart composed six quintets for strings that comprise two violins, two violas and cello. (They are sometimes called ‘viola quintets’.) This one, K516, was composed in 1787 and is one of the most beloved chamber works in the repertory. Mozart used the key of G Minor sparingly, the most famous example being his Symphony No. 40. Rather than the doom and gloom that many find in the composer’s use of the key, this listener finds the opposite. The first movement is music that sings and soars, especially when it is well-played as it was here. Again the acoustics favored the strings, which can create warm, blending sounds. And as in the Bach trio, spot-on intonation was an important factor in the success of the performance. Especially noteworthy was the ensemble’s natural rhythmic flow which, in its flexibility, allowed the colorful harmonies to shape the phrasing. For the quintet, violinist Beaver and violist Liang-Ping How joined the musicians of the Bach trio.
Rebecca Jackson and Jonah Kim were joined by Danish pianist Katrine Gislinge (left) for an energetic performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, another “warhorse” of the classical repertory and probably the most played and demanded by audiences. Gislinge has a distinguished career in Europe and was a joy to hear. She easily flew through the virtuoso piano writing, making it sound as simple as floating on air. Her rapid scale passages were strings of lustrous pearls. The Yamaha CFX piano sounded glorious under her control.
Unfortunately, the violin and cello were dwarfed by this beautiful piano. At times its upper register canceled out the violin. This is the challenge of the work: every ensemble struggles with balancing a big piano sound with violin and cello. (Only a studio recording does the work justice, where balance can be controlled electronically.) But in the lush Andante second movement, Jackson and Kim were able to shine in the warmth of Mendelssohn’s writing.
Their performance of the Scherzo third movement was a complete success, as evidenced by the audience reaction. It is a known fact among performers that Mendelssohn’s scherzos can elicit sighs and giggles, spontaneous physical responses. This audience performed on cue, including giggles. It was great. The last movement concluded with bravura as pianist Gislinge performed with a dazzling technique and beautiful sound.