The Delaware Chamber Music Festival continued its celebration of the music of Johannes Brahms June 23 through 25 with complementary works by Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mozart and Turina.
Friday, June 23’s concert opened with a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op.18, no. 1. The instrumental Brahms owes much to Beethoven, who brought many innovations to his musical genres, not the least of which was the systematic use of interlocking thematic devices to achieve intra- and inter-movement unity in long compositions.
The six quartets that make up the Op. 18 set were Beethoven’s way of announcing to the world that he was to be taken seriously as a composer. It was evident that the musicians viewed the work not as the apogee of 18th Century Viennese Classicism, but rather as a transitional work that looked forward to the composer’s middle period.
That approach was made plain in the slow movement, which was presented as a deeply felt lament. Here Beethoven goes far beyond Haydn, writing in an emotional intensity — the movement is his musical depiction of the tomb scene of “Romeo and Juliet” — that must have shocked his contemporaries. The finale was energetic and incisive, elegant and charming.
Guest artists Hirono Oka (violin) and Marcantonio Barone (piano) collaborated in a tour de force rendering of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, a 1930s work arranged from the ballet Pulcinella. Stravinsky based Pulcinella on music that had been attributed (probably erroneously) to the 18th Century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi. The result is not an antiquarian piece but a seamless fusion of the old and the new. Stravinsky maintained the courtly character of the Baroque melodies but spiced up the music with pungent harmonies and updated rhythms.
Oka and Barone respected the 18th Century influences in a refined performance full of spongy Baroque rhythms. But they also played with ample color and expression, making the music sound decidedly contemporary. Oka’s tone was both sweet and luminous and decisive.
The lighthearted character of the Suite Italienne gave way to the symphonic grandeur of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. Brahms published the work when he was 32 years old, but by then it had gone through several transformations: it began as a string quintet in 1862 and was rescored as a work for two pianos until Brahms gave it its final form.
This is a work of surging passion, tempered only momentarily by the softer-edged Andante. Govatos, Oka, Chen, Newman and Barone conveyed the full-bodied Romanticism of the two outer movements and the driven Scherzo and a plaintive, soulful rendering of the slow movement. Yet as heated as the music got, the ensemble kept the texture remarkably transparent. Viola and cello lines were never buried yet the group produced a solid, powerful sound.
On Saturday, June 24, concertgoers headed to the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew in downtown Wilmington for a free concert, marking the first collaboration between the DCMF and the residents of the Boysie Lowery Living Jazz Residency. Six residents were given a week to compose a work that incorporated a classical string quartet — a first for these talented young artists.
Each composition was noteworthy but Sasquatch by vibraphonist Grady Tesch brought down the house. Tesch also excelled as a featured player in Mike Talento’s Half and Half and as lyricist and vocalist in Ike Spivak’s Plot Twist, which recounted the musical journeys of jazz luminaries.
Jazz vocalist Isabel Crespo gave a plaintive rendering of her composition Hide and Seek, while trombonist Kristin Monroe ably combined elements of jazz and classical in Coasting Equilibrium, her contribution in the tradition of Astor Piazzolla’s nuevo tango. Libby Larsen kept the musicians moving — especially pianist Julie Nishimura — with the kinetic energy of Four on the Floor.
Tina Betz, also executive director of the Light Up the Queen Foundation, applied her dramatic contralto to a powerful rendering of Strange Fruit, a song about lynching made famous by the late Billie Holiday. Douglas Mapp, associate principal bass with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, joined the string quartet to accompany. The song was arranged for this performance by Boysie Lowery director, Jonathan Whitney.
Sunday, June 25’s program opened with Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K. 136, the first of a group of works known collectively as the “Salzburg” symphonies. The work was performed at the request of DCMF Board President Carolyn Luttrell. Govatos, Oka, Chen and Newman played with a nimbleness and precision that underscored the decorous elegance of a work that can only be described as a masterpiece on the smallest possible scale.
Pianist Natalie Zhu joined Govatos, Chen and Newman in a seductive and sensitive performance of Joaquin Turina’s Piano Quarter in A minor, Op. 67. Composed in 1931, this gently melancholic work resonates with the vivid harmonies and impetuous rhythms of Spanish folk music yet at the same time bears the imprint of impressionists’ influence in its spacious, colorful textures.
The program — and season — concluded with a performance of Brahms’ breathtaking Quintet in G major, Op. 111. Orchestra in conception, this piece creates the effect of far more than five players. This was a passionate performance. Cellist Newman was more than equal to the full opening of the first movement. The Adagio was rapt intensity; the Allegretto wistful and the finale, robust.