Music in May

LinBy Roger Emanuels

CELEBRATING ITS 11th concert season on May 26 and 27, Music in May has again proven to be a major springtime event in Santa Cruz County. Two superb chamber music programs featured guest violinist Cho-Liang Lin (pictured) with a large roster of 17 distinguished musicians from around the United States. Known in California as music director of La Jolla SummerFest, Lin has performed as soloist internationally, has an extensive list of recordings and is a dedicated educator.

Samper Recital Hall in Aptos provided a wonderful setting for the Music in May concerts. Relocating here is a welcome upgrade to the performance space.

The Saturday concert was dedicated to music of the 19th century. Pianist Anna Polonsky set the mood with Robert Schumann’s Arabesque, a decorative floral expression that emphasized Polonsky’s sensitivity to musical story-telling. The variety of colors in her playing easily engages the listener.

The Quintet for Strings in C Major, Op. 29 by Beethoven began with a warm glow, the well-blended sound assuring a clean and confident performance. This is the composer’s only composition for two violins, two violas and cello. The addition of a second viola gives a noticeably different character to the sound, creating more weight to the lower string range. The performance sparkled with typical Beethoven touches of sudden dynamic and mood changes. The ensemble had only days to prepare though they sounded as if they had been playing together for some time. Violinist Lin was joined by violinist Liang-Ping How, violists Alexandra Leem and Jaime Amador and cellist Danielle Cho.

The cheerfulness of Beethoven’s C Major Quintet balanced well with the darkly dramatic Quartet No. 3 for Piano and Strings in C Minor, Op. 60 by Brahms. The Andante is a love song for cello, and was played as such by Jonah Kim. His sound has a projection even in the quietist moments. Kim and Cho-Liang Lin were joined by Daniel Stewart, viola, and Anna Polonsky, piano. As in the Beethoven, this performance demonstrated excellent balance and ensemble.

The second concert, on Sunday, had a Russian theme with music by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, and the premiere of a newly commissioned work for solo violin by Polina Nazaykinskaya, who was born in Russia in 1987 and now lives in the US. This is her second commission from Music in May, having produced a chamber work in 2012.

Her new work, Hope, is for solo violin and is dedicated to the memory of violinist David Arben, a mentor and advisor of Music in May founder Rebecca Jackson. Rebecca is preparing a biography of Arben, a Polish holocaust survivor who had a successful career in America, performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 34 years, much of that time as associate concertmaster.

Rebecca gave a solid and engaging reading of this “dramatic, virtuosic fantasia for solo violin,” as it was described in the program notes. Nazaykinskaya has a solid background in violin performance. She knows how the instrument works and what it can offer expressively. She is not searching for new or unconventional ways to produce sound on the violin. Much of the work requires playing two notes simultaneously, creating a forward moving harmony. Another technique to create harmony is the rapid rolling of the bow across the strings, a device from the 18th century Italian violin composers. Nazaykinskaya’s harmonies are not traditional, but they retain the same elements of tension and release.

The Quintet for Piano and Strings by Dmitri Shostakovich was premiered by the composer in 1940 in Moscow. Containing five movements, the addition of a second slow movement is a break from the four-movement tradition. This solid performance provided an opportunity to hear the rich sound of violist Jaime Amador and expressive playing of cellist Kim. Violinists Liang-Ping How and Rebecca Jackson with pianist Anna Polonsky completed the ensemble. Sparks were flying in the Scherzo movement.

The highlight and grand finale of Music in May 2018 was the Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky. Without conductor, the fifteen musicians were led by guest artist Lin, filling the hall with a resonance that only 15 perfectly tuned and coordinated participants can make. The opening chords were played with warm, integrated sound, impeccable ensemble and intonation that characterized the level of performance throughout. Tchaikovsky claimed influence from the serenades of Mozart which is difficult to find in this piece. But in the comfortable Waltz movement, the charming inner voice activity is a typical Mozart technique. The third movement Elegy opened with a dark sound that gave way to haunting melodies and a tinge of nostalgia. The Finale, with its Russian folk theme brought the work to a satisfying conclusion with rhythmic vitality.

Musicians in the earlier performances on these programs were joined by Hee-Guen Song, Nigel Armstrong, Heather Powell, Minsun Choi, Mayumi Wyrick and Rebecca Racusin, violins, Tiffany Richardson, viola and Sayuri Yamamoto, bass.

An important component of Music in May is the outreach accomplished through Sound Impact, a collective formed in 2012 by Rebecca Jackson, Tiffany Richardson and Danielle Cho.

Their mission is to take live music into the community, including schools, hospitals, homeless centers, juvenile detention centers and orphanages throughout the US and Costa Rica. Their remarkable activity can be viewed at