Tried and true coupled with bold and “new” made for an interesting mix that combined instrumental and vocal forces in Friday night’s Greensboro Symphony's Rice Toyota "Sitkovetsky & Friends" Chamber Series concert. An instrumental piece by opera composer Puccini and a vocal work by tone-poem master Respighi opened the Italian portion of the evening.
Puccini wrote "Chrisantemi" ("Chrysanthemums") for string quartet in 1890, and the composition is one of his few forays into pure instrumental music, and even here, the tunes are decidedly vocal in nature. This 6-minute piece is somber and dark; the composer would later use two of the melodies in his 1893 opera, Manon Lescaut. The quartet — John Fadial and Andrew Emmett (violins), Noah Hock (viola) and Beth Vanderborgh (cello) — caught the poignant essence of the score.
Ottorino Respighi is justly famous for his orchestral works such as The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome, but he also wrote works for voice including Il Tramonto (“The Sunset”) for mezzo-soprano and string quartet (1914). The text is based on a poem by Shelley and describes a pretty bleak picture of a woman’s thoughts about the death of her lover early in life and her enduring sorrow throughout the rest of her long existence. Respighi’s music evokes the gloom and reflects the text quite literally.
The quartet consisted of Fadial, Hock, and Vanderborgh with Dmitri Sitkovetsky replacing Emmett and sitting first chair. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski has had a long and illustrious career in opera and on the concert stage since the mid-1970s, and although her voice is no longer in its prime, her understanding of the drama of this music and her dark-hued timbre were good matches for the emotion called for in the course of the 15-minute work. The instrumentalists, for their part, painted the scena in good fashion.
As is customary on these Friday night chamber concerts, the emcee was Sitkovetsky, who talked to the audience about each piece in turn. In his introductory remarks about Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A Major, he pointed out that Schubert was the composer who “started the chamber music boom” through his association with musical gatherings known as “Schubertiades,” or soirees featuring the performances of chamber music.
This is a large-scale five-movement work and instead of the more usual instrumental combination of piano and string quartet, a double bass replaces one of the violins. The Quintet also reveals Schubert at his most elegant, his most charming, and his most sparkling. The work is commonly known as the “Trout” because the fourth movement is a theme and variations on the composer’s song of the same name. Hey! — is there a vocalist in the house who might sing the song before its instrumental version is performed? How about Ciesinski?
But not before the first three movements were performed by Inara Zandmane (piano), Sitkovetsky (violin), Scott Rawls (viola), Brooks Whitehouse (cello), and Emily Rupp (double bass). Although the first movement is marked “Allegro vivace” (“fast and lively”), the beginning is more meditative and slowly reveals the first theme before the action really takes flight. The Andante second movement is chock full of wonderful tunes, and the third movement Scherzo is one of those joyous jaunts that dances throughout.
Now Ciesinski joined the others on the stage for the singing of the “Trout” song with Zandmane accompanying. The piano part depicts a bubbling stream, over which the singer presents the not-so-serious warning of how one may “get hooked” if one is not careful. Her singing set the perfect tone for the ensuing conclusion of the Quintet.
The fourth movement presents the tune and the accompaniment as the theme, and Schubert then begins the exploration of elements of the tune, assigning important parts to each member of the ensemble. The Finale is lighthearted and unpretentious, and one can hear hints of the “Trout” in several passages.
Since the double bass functions as low support of the ensemble, (which Rupp securely anchored), the cello is freed up to present many melodic passages, which Whitehouse played with authority and sensitivity throughout the work. Violist Rawls, too, received many golden opportunities to sing, and he made the most of them. And Sitkovetsky was the “first among equals” and never failed to present his leading role in great style. One would be derelict if the pianist were not particularly praised. Throughout the work, the piano plays in a higher register (remember the double bass?), and must not only bubble with energy, but also soar on many occasions. Zandamane’s artistry filled the bill perfectly.