Word must be on the street, because the “Great Space” of the sanctuary at Christ United Methodist in Greensboro was full to bursting with listeners for one of the final chamber music events at this year’s Eastern Music Festival.
The evening opened with a work that is not strictly chamber music – the Piano Concerto in A, K. 414, by Mozart here presented with the Steinway grand accompanied by an ensemble of solo strings (the original also includes a pair of oboes and a pair of horns). Steven Ledbetter’s notes make the argument that nothing essential is lost when the winds are not present, but somehow this orchestral work seemed considerably less robust in this resonant space than the Mozart quintet for piano and winds that I heard earlier in the month in the UNCG Recital Hall. This work from 1782 seems to spend considerably more time in the treble register for the keyboard solo instrument, so that while William Wolfram in the previous piano/winds quintet made me imagine that the work might have been conceived for the modern instruments we heard, Gideon Rubin’s interpretation on this program had the unfortunate effect of highlighting the “early-ness” of the writing in an unfortunate way, with the sound of both piano and strings evaporating into the resonant recesses of the church. Rubin also stumbled significantly twice in the first movement, in the exposition, and at the recapitulation (a mystery, since he seemed well in control the rest of the time); all in all, a reading that shed no light and little warmth on this particular work.
The work which followed, the original scoring for Copland’s Appalachian Spring (for 13 solo instruments – four violins, two violas, two celli, bass, piano and flute, clarinet and bassoon), was an immense contrast. Here, the performers, almost all standing, were ranged across the platform at the front of the sanctuary, and the lively sound took full advantage of the resonant acoustics of the space, but with all the details registering. There was no conductor, and the leading part at any given moment directed, with an almost telepathic excellence of ensemble, and audible breaths helping to place the entrances which followed. This was a performance which really brought home the excellence of the composition, the virtuosity of Copland’s writing for the instruments (as a wind player I especially enjoyed the flute, clarinet and bassoon, but the playing was electric all around), Copland’s transformation of his naïve materials from American folklore (without verging on the kitsch, a dangerous temptation), and it even made me think of the real optimism involved in writing such a work in 1944 while the world experienced some of the most terrible moments of the twentieth century. The ensemble transported the listeners with one of the most vibrant and communicative performances I have heard in years. Simply stunning, marvelous – words cannot do justice.
I cannot say that, after the Copland, I was looking forward to the long and bleak expanses of the Schubert “Death and the Maiden” Quartet after intermission, but to their credit, the faculty quartet led by Jessica Guideri (with Jeffrey Multer, violin, Chauncy Patterson, viola and Julian Schwarz, cello) played this familiar work at the very highest level. Guideri, very much prima inter pares, was dramatic and expressive without being histrionic, and showed a mastery of dynamics, both piano and forte, that lent chiaroscuro to the writing, particularly important given the length and dark character of the work. The final presto went as fast as one could imagine, and then faster in the final accelerando. The quartet was rewarded (as was the Copland on the first half) with a lengthy and loud standing ovation that only ended when the lights were turned up.