SC Chamber Players “Never Again”

By Scott MacClelland

RJAS DESIGNATED ARTISTIC DIRECTOR to open the Santa Cruz Chamber Players season, violinist Rebecca Jackson assembled an ensemble of superb string players, as heard Sunday in Aptos. As second violin, she joined violinist Moni Simeonov, violist Tiffany Richardson and cellist Frédéric Rosselet in a dazzling account of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, stunning the large audience at Christ Lutheran with its inherent suspense and dramatic power. The 20-minute performance, which opened and closed with the same fugal treatment of the composer’s musical monogram—D, E-flat, C, B—which here was introduced out of order, to wit, C, B, D, E-flat, but appears in the original numerous times. There can be no question that that monogram is at least as potent as JS Bach’s less-often used monogram—B-flat, A, C, B. (To read more about Shostakovich and this work scroll down to the Ensemble Monterey review which covers the same piece in a chamber orchestra version.)

What remains inescapable is that the original version in the right hands is both more powerful and more intimate than the Rudolf Barshai arrangement that he dubbed a Chamber Symphony. After two and a half centuries of string quartet development and scores of masterpieces by the greatest composers of the western canon, that should be obvious. But to be fair, even the greatest masters somehow couldn’t keep their hands off even their own best music—in the 18th and 19th centuries to sell more copies—to say nothing by others after the fact.

But Barshai was not one of them and in some respects he unbalanced this piece when it comes to the solo outbursts on violin that sear the ears in the original. To do Barshai justice is to acknowledge the balance problems and fix them, not an easy task.

The concert opened with Moni Simeonov, a Bulgaria-native, playing The Lark Ascending, a “romance” for violin and piano by Ralph Vaughan Williams set in the English pastoral character also associated with Butterworth and Holst. Jackson’s program was titled “Never Again.” Just as The Lark was born of the composer’s experiences in World War I, the Shostakovich echoes with palpable anxiety his  memories of World War II. Much of The Lark warbles on violin arpeggios and scales, the very practice materials musicians use to master their instruments, and mostly on pentatonic scales, the universal language of folksong. Simeonov cast the magical spell of the 15-minute work with pianist Christine McLeavey Payne, taking account of her mostly subservient role. The concert’s mood was set.

The centerpiece of the program was presented last. Haim, composed in 2012 by talented Russia-born Polina Nazaykinskaya, now 28, is a largely programmatic work in celebration of David Arben, a Nazi Holocaust survivor who has long maintained that it was his youthful skill and talent on the violin that “literally” saved his life. (After the war, he came to the United States and played for decades as a concertmaster with the Philadelphia Orchestra.) Haim (Hebrew for ‘life’) is fashioned in three parts: a short instrumental introduction, a concise narration of Arben’s own autobiography (in this case spoken by Gena Connelly) and an expanded musical elaboration of the opening introduction. The music is scored for string quartet, clarinet and piano.

Having been inspired by Arben’s story, Polina explained briefly in her program note that the clarinet represents Arben and the first violin—Jackson’s part here—the instrument that rescued him from death at Nazi hands. Lasting 21 minutes in performance, Haim was premiered by Jackson’s Music in May festival in 2012.

The introduction lays out the musical substance of the work. A lidless piano for which its player, McLeavey Payne—who is also a physics graduate—needs to stand, press the sustain pedal and, with her hand, smack the lower strings of the piano with percussive force. This shocking effect was repeated many times, setting an ominous tone over the whole proceedings. She later plucked a higher string that suggested church bells. But most of the time she played the instrument conventionally. The clarinet, played here by Natalie Parker, beautifully intoned phrases that were intentionally choked off. Later, McLeavey Payne scrubbed the piano strings with some handheld device, achieving more effects usually associated with percussion players. Later still, the solo violin and clarinet were supported by drones on the other strings. The piece was often very loud, but also whispered. One was forced to bear witness to Arben’s youthful traumatic memories of the Holocaust in the form of a catharsis.

Just ahead of the this work, McLeavey Payne spoke briefly about Alexander Scriabin then played his Prelude for the left hand, of 1894, though I could not figure out how the program note about the pianist Paul Wittgenstein had any relevance here at all.

Jackson’s program handout included a description of her ongoing project, Sound Impact, which she has taken to many locations in the US and Costa Rica, to provide introduction and instruction to communities underserved with music. The project largely grew out of Nazaykinskaya’s Haim. Last week, with support of philanthropist David Kaun, Jackson and the members of this quartet visited the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall for three two-hour sessions with the inmates there, one each for duos, trios and quartets. Here is Jackson’s description: “We not only performed but planned an entire curriculum that included educational exercises and interactive games which included having them compose a melody by placing notes on a staff and we played what they created back to them—they especially loved this game. The final day culminated in a collaborative performance with us providing background music as they read their own writing from the sessions or a famous poem.”

Photo by Scot Goodman, Montalvo Arts Center