Richardson — The highlight of Saturday evening’s Chamber Music International concert at Richardson’s St. Barnabas Presbyterian Church was an opportunity to hear one of the best harpists in the world: Nancy Allen, Principal Harp of the New York Philharmonic, joined CMI regulars and special guests for Claude Debussy’s Danse sacreé et danse profane for harp and string quartet and Joel Hoffman’s 2015 piece “of Deborah, for Deborah.”
Allen’s playing is stellar. Confident, bold, and gorgeous, this is harp playing that assertively takes the foreground, rather than being the atmospheric addition it so often is in orchestral playing. In the Debussy, all five musicians, including violinists Cho-Liang Lin and Felix Olschofka, violist Toby Hoffman (brother of composer Joel), and cellist Bion Tsang seemed to have unified musical ideas, especially notable since these are not musicians who play together regularly.
Hoffman’s piece, for violin (Lin), viola, cello, and harp, uses the notes D, E, B-flat, A, and B as signature pitches—in German musical nomenclature, these notes would be called D, E, B, A, and H—“Deborah,” or close to it. Deborah Hoffman, sister to composer Joel and violist Toby, was the harpist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, who died two years ago. Joel Hoffman’s composition honors her memory. While it uses contemporary-sounding harmonies, it does not attempt to use the strings as percussion instruments or indulge in funky techniques. Instead, the focus is on rhythmic interest. While the purpose behind the composition is admirable, I didn’t hear anything that would inspire many performances, except that, perhaps, it expands the limited chamber-music repertoire for harp.
Although harp was literally and figuratively the centerpiece of the concert, the program began with Dvořák’s Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G Major, featuring Cho-Liang Lin on violin and Jon Kimura Parker on piano. Lin and Parker work well together—the Sonatina is not a technically demanding piece, so it requires considerable dynamic and phrasing subtlety to be musically interesting. After a few initial wobbles, the duo projected energy and enthusiasm to the final movement’s fiery finish.
The crowd-pleaser of the evening was saved for after intermission, though. Brahms’s iconic Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, with its rousing final Rondo alla Zingarese, as performed by Lin, Hoffman, Tsang, and Kimura Parker, had the audience leaping to its feet before the final notes had died away. It was a well-deserved honor for a fine performance.