Fort Worth — The virtual concert seasons have begun. As performing arts try to save themselves in this COVID-19 era, a wide range of alternative methods are beginning to appear, including drive-in venues. On Saturday, the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth chose to keep the intimate nature of chamber music by opening the season with an online concert (it will present online concerts in October and November).
There was a tinge of the familiar because the program originated in their usual venue, the auditorium at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The concert met the high standards we have come to expect from CMSFW ever since Gary Levinson took over as artistic director.
The safety requirements these days sacrifices the camaraderie of the audience, an important element of CMSFW’s recent successes. Because of the intimacy of the hall, the regulars in the audience, many of them long-time supporters, even have their favorite chair. But, alas, this is the way life is these days and probably will be for a few seasons. We have to adjust.
The concert was prerecorded, mostly because of the massive amount of equipment required to make such a program video-worthy, both sight and sound-wise. The result was excellent. The instruments were all balanced with each other; a difficult result to create.
This concert was programmed around Hungarian music. Thus, the main work on the program was Antonin Dvořák’s divine Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81. This is a surefire audience pleaser and a personal favorite of yours truly.
In a 30-minute pre-concert talk, CMSFW presented a conversation between Levinson and the celebrated program annotator and writer Laurie Shulman. It was quite fascinating and made full use of the video medium by showing many visuals and playing brief excepts. Schulman gave us the academics and Levinson gave us the viewpoint of the players. When the concert started, we were prepped for Hungarianism. To underpin this, the program opened with two related amuse-gueules before the main course.
Dvořák's Slavonic Dance in E minor, Op. 72, No. 2, was sensitively played by Aaron Boyd, the Director of Chamber Music and Professor of Violin at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. Next up was a fiery performance of Johannes Brahms‘ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor, from Op. 65a, delivered with aplomb by Levinson.
The second movement of the set, played here, is based on the dance form named starodávný, which means “old one” or “ancient one,” implying a very old genesis. The languid mood of the beautiful and haunting melody has made it a favorite. Boyd caught the essence of the dance and gave an involving performance.
In contrast, Levinson, in his role as violinist, launched a blaze of notes with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. This work is probably one of the best-known selections in all of classical music, heard in everything from serious movies to wacky cartoons. This movement is based on tunes Brahms gathered from Roma festivals and they represent the great variety of moods from very fast, even frantic, to languid and even sexy. Levinson captured all of this perfectly, but he especially shone in the fast virtuoso passages.
After all of this, we were eager for the main course of Dvořák’s much-loved Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81.
Viollinists Levinson and Boyd were joined by pianist Baya Kakouberi, violist Dmitry Kustanovich, and cellist Allan Steele. Kakouberi is known internationally as a superb solo and collaborative pianist. Kustanovich and Steele are both in the Fort Worth Symphony.
When the quintet started, the serene and beautiful main theme was as entrancing as ever with Alan Steele’s rendition. His cello sound is both warm and assertive. The explosion that followed woke us from our reverie. Later on, Levinson took the melody in a higher octave and, hearing it that way, answered the question of why Dvořák first gave to the warm tenor singing quality of the cello for its first presentation. It was still beautiful but somehow not as warm or comforting played on the violin in its upper register.
In the first movement, the quartet and Kakouberi handed the music’s melodic units between them in such a smooth fashion that the listener could barely notice. Thanks to the ensemble skill of the players, the opening theme kept peeking out until it was finally recapitulated.
Kakouberi played the entire quintet without a page turner and with the ease of visiting an old friend. Her balance with the string quartet was always exact, coming forward when requested and then fading back into the texture.
In another innovative opening, the second movement opens with a viola solo. Kustanovich certainly gave it its due, with his viola’s deep, musky or slightly muted sound. Words to describe it fail me; all violas sound different by a degree. His is unmistakably viola-ish, but still has enough brilliance to sound out clearly in the ensemble without sounding like a violin. The passage, with short offbeats, is always an ensemble challenge, but here they were quite precise. Also, tempo was right on in the middle movement.
The third movement is a sparkler of virtuosity and rhythmic diversity. It was only missing the foot stops so characteristic of this kind of music in Roma hands. It started out on the fast side but settled down after the first tempo change. However, it was straining at the reins for most of the movement. But it sure was exciting.