The energetic, brilliant and often dazzling chamber music ensemble Opus One returned to Duke on the evening of September 13 to launch the Chamber Arts Society's star-studded season. The members of this quartet are the intensely animated pianist Anne-Marie McDermott (some attendees found it best not to look at her), violinist Ida Kavafian, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Peter Wiley. All are hallowed artists whose work in various ensembles has done much to elevate standards of professional chamber music making in our country. McDermott, for example, commands attention as a soloist with orchestras here and there, as does Kavafian. Both are on the roster of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Tenenbom is with the Orion String Quartet, and he and his other half (Kavafian) are also members of TASHI. Wiley is perhaps best known as the "new" cellist of the Guarneri String Quartet.
One of the delights of this ensemble - and there are many - is that the four "stars" play together like a well-oiled machine, so the works selected were given consistently vibrant and insightful readings. The program began with Dvorák's charming Sonatina in G, Op. 100, a work that seems drenched in music that suggests the composer's "American" period and is nicknamed "Indian Lament," although truth to tell it sounds pretty Bohemian, and there's a strong possibility that it is we who have taken its harmonies, rhythms, and melodies to our national bosom, rather than the other way 'round.
Incidentally, the Opus One foursome seems to like Dvorák, since they played his Second Piano Quartet the last time (see review), and that's good, for the 100th anniversary of the composer's death in 1904 will surely result in lots of performances this year and next.
The second work, Martinu's Piano Quartet No. 1, was - understandably - similar in tone and overtones, too, but it is a "modern" score with many impressive touches, most of which doubtless stemmed from the composer having been uprooted from his homeland. Martinu's music is too rarely performed hereabouts, so Opus One's reading of this work was most welcome in the overall scheme of things.
Brahms' First Piano Quartet is his best-known score in this form. Indeed, it is so popular that Schoenberg prepared a lavish orchestration of it that has turned up in the Tar Heel State on at least one occasion (at the Eastern Music Festival). Opus One brought intensity and incisiveness to the packed Reynolds Industries Theatre and whipped up a frenzy in the brilliant concluding Rondo alla Zingarese. There was extended applause, but the piece doesn't lend itself to being followed by anything else, and there was no encore.
This wonderful series, heavy again on quartets this season, offers performances by the Tokyo String Quartet (on October 4), the St. Lawrence, with clarinetist Todd Palmer (November 15), and, later in the season, Finckel and Han (in an all-Russian program), the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio (whose cellist was, early in her career, a member of Duke's Ciompi Quartet), and the Takács Quartet. Alas, the series is basically sold out, but it's worth a call at the last minute if you happen not to be a ticket holder (or, perish the thought, a critic).
Several typos marred the otherwise handsome program leaflet, which was presented for the first time in memory in large print on 8-1/2 x 11 paper.
Opus One was the main event, but there was a subsidiary happening, too, that has provoked a lot of post-concert conversation. Duke has opened its new parking deck, and it's a handsome thing, indeed, nestled in what used to be woods beside the Bryan Center. But there were many problems on September 13, starting with loquacious attendants who were obliged to explain the new deal to the trapped patrons - and they were indeed captive, once they'd made the turn toward the Bryan Center, 'cause there was no parking on the street, the surface lots were closed off (gated), and the road now dead-ends in a circle. A spokesperson for the Society addressed the new deck and the fees and the season parking vouchers that may be purchased, so the concert began late - perhaps this also allowed folks still stuck in traffic to get to the hall. Then those vouchers were hawked during intermission, extending it considerably beyond the norm. And getting out of the new deck was worse than getting in, because only one exit was open (the one on the lower level was gated) and the attendants were giving refunds to people who has purchased vouchers. It was, in a word, a mess.
Music groups and music patrons, too, are being hit with ever-increasing costs - artists fees have skyrocketed in recent years (which is why we get so few visiting orchestras), and ticket buyers are constantly exhorted to give, give, and give again to help sustain cultural programs. If the 600 or so people who attended this concert had all driven alone and parked in that deck, the toll would have been $3,000, which would pay for a cheap touring group - or an outstanding local one. Surely there is a better solution for patrons, whether well-heeled or not. And what about the impact of such fees on students and other young people, whom the presenters are doing all they can to draw into classical events, as cushions for the "graying" audiences everyone perceives are dying off in droves...? Well, one little rant in a review is not likely to change things, but consider these two points: UNCG advertises its programs with the line "Free, safe parking adjacent to the School of Music"; and this critic has never paid to park for a concert in downtown Raleigh - no, not once in over 25 years of attending concerts in the capital. UNC has imposed fees for surface parking at night in the vicinity of Swain and Hill Halls but there's no reason for the Gothic Rockpilers to pile it on like those Whiskey Hillians. For the record, there's no mention of free parking anywhere in Duke's published parking regulations, online at https://aux03.auxserv.duke.edu/parking/ [inactive 4/07]. At the very least, Duke owes its visitors the option of parking somewhere else, for free, even if it's miles away - and should tell people who visit the campus, before they're effectively snared with no alternative. Enough, already!