Anyone who thinks that a chamber music concert is a dull affair with polite performances of stuffy music would have had that impression dispelled on Monday. Dallas Chamber Music presented the red-hot chamber group, Concertante, at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium. They ripped through some Brahms, Elgar and Bridge giving a hold-on-to-your-seats performance that got a rousing response from the appreciative audience.
The players are violinists Xiao-Dong Wang and Lisa Shihoten, violists Ara Gregorian and Dov Scheindlin, as well as cellists James Wilson and Alexis Pia Gerlach. The group started out as a chamber-sized string orchestra in 1995 and played concerts in various arrangements, such as trios and quartets, thereafter. In 2012, they settled on the string sextet configuration with some added collaborators, such as pianists and other solo instrumental players, including (surprisingly) a musicologist. Their website's biography section is under construction, but the brief bios in the program inform us that they come from all over the globe. Juilliard seems to be a uniting thread.
While there wasn't anything by a living composer, two of the three works on the program dated from the early 20th century. The anchor work was the glorious G-major Sextet of Brahms. The first half consisted of Elgar's E-minor Serenade for string orchestra, Op. 20, in an attractive arrangement by violist Gregorian, and a striking new discovery for many, the Sextet in E-flat Major by Frank Bridge.
Bridge is best known to musicians as the teacher of Benjamin Britten. For that accomplishment alone, he deserves a star in the musical heavens. He also deserves more performances of his music, which is on a very high level if this sextet if representative. This is a relatively early work, dating from 1913, but had a six-year gestation process. At this point, Bridge was writing in a romantic style with influences as varied as English folk songs and French impressionists as diverse as the modest Fauré and the more adventurous Ravel. After World War 1, Bridge experienced a personal, and thus musical stylistic crisis. Afterwards, it also bothered him that his early works, like the present one, were performed while his later ones, in his more adventurous style, were largely ignored.
Elgar's Serenade for Strings in E minor is also an early work. It started out as a suite for string orchestra and was revised to its present form in 1912, the same time frame as the Bridge piece that followed it on the program. Musical traits that define Elgar's style are already present: conservative romantic harmonic leanings combined with a mastery of form and orchestration. The work lost nothing in Gregorian's expert version for sextet.
Brahms' String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36 is both well known and frequently programmed. It grew out of a complicated romantic entanglement in the young composer's life. Much has been written about his affection, some say obsession, for Robert Schumann's wife, Clara. This brought him into conflict when he was attracted to Agatha von Siebold, a young singer. She didn't stand a chance up against the colorful Clara and he ended the relationship.
This work, written after the Agatha affair had ended, is filled with some of the composer's most romantic music. Agatha's name is spelled out melodically in the first movement.
Wang remained in the first violin chair for the entire program, but the other players switched chairs for the Brahms. It is a tribute to the fine level of playing that either violist or cellist in Concertante is up to the task of sitting in the first chair. However, with Wang still in the lead, the seat switches had little impact on the overall sound.
Wang turned in a flawless performance. His leadership was apparent throughout. The intonation, ensemble and articulation of all of the players were excellent but his lead was critical to this success. It was obvious that Concertante has a collective concept of the pieces they perform and they feel the music as one. Entrances were spot on and phrasing unified.
In all three works on the program, Concertante took an assertive and bold approach. Some in the audience might have felt that some passages were too loud for chamber music or for the performance practices of the era of compositions. A good argument can be made for this assessment. However, others of us found the entire performance to be exciting, even exhilarating.
Adding to the evening's festivities, Dallas Chamber Music offered complimentary coffee and cookies before the performance and again at intermission. This is a welcome development since Caruth offers nothing in the way of drinks and snacks, other than a weak drinking fountain. It is rumored that a soda and coffee machine lie somewhere in the bowels of the building, but a short intermission time discourages such an adventurous journey. The refreshments were much appreciated.