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Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra showed their considerable skills in a wonderfully varied program of chamber music in the restored Turnage Theater. Violinist Joseph Genualdi and horn player Gail Williams, founding members of the Chicago Chamber Musicians, were joined by noted pianist Robert McDonald in selections by Brahms, Schumann, and Debussy, spanning the mid-19th century through the early 20th century.
The Chicago Chamber Musicians consist of members of the CSO who, in addition to playing a number of concerts in their home town, separate from the symphony, occasionally take leave of the Windy City to perform chamber music on the road. How fortunate that they could show their consummate artistry to an eastern North Carolina audience on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon!
The program opened with Brahms' Sonata in A, Op. 100, No. 2, for violin and piano, and despite a thin sound to Genualdi's violin in the early going, the piece nevertheless carried the signature weight and richness of much of Brahms' music. The elegant first movement, "Allegro amabile" was a true duet, while the second movement, "Andante tranquillo-vivace," placed the violin more in the forefront, with the piano in more of an accompanying role, although a highlight of the second was a joyous sounding, rhythmic piano line paired with pizzicato violin. The majestic final movement, "Allegretto grazioso," contained moments of lovely intimacy and was played gorgeously by both musicians.
McDonald played four selections from Debussy's first book of preludes, including the well known "Girl with the Flaxen Hair" and "Sunken Cathedral." He opened with "Les collines d'Anacapri" ("Hills of Anacapri"), which alternated between lightness and heft, fast and slow, and the upper and lower ends of the keyboard. A Neapolitan folk tune provided a jolly bridge between the opening and closing sections. "Ce qu' a vu le vent d'ouest" ("What the West Wind has Seen") offered surging arpeggios signifying the wind over a near-unending foundation of lower notes and chords. Debussy exploited the percussive nature of the piano in this prelude, although he also scored a group of huge, ascending chords that led to an abrupt and unexpected ending.
McDonald's reading of "La fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair") was elegant and straightforward, from the simplicity of the familiar opening phrase to its repetition in the next higher octave and its haunting close. "La cathedrale engloutie" ("The Sunken Cathedral") concluded this portion of the program, and it provided McDonald with the opportunity to explore a wide range of tonal colors, from the soft opening to the assertive first statement, and the impression of something grand rising from the depths, shaking off darkness and ascending into light, and then the returning to the depths.
Williams and McDonald collaborated on an unusual piece by Schumann, the Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, which imposes significant musical demands on the horn, an instrument that is one of the most difficult of all to play. Yet Williams moved effortlessly from a low bass to a near-soprano register, providing a deep resonance when called for and also a surprisingly light and airy tone in almost the same breath. The second part features a devilishly fast and tricky opening and contains an interesting hunting call-like passage.
The musicians finished the program with Brahms' Trio in E-flat, Op. 40, for horn, piano, and violin, a full-bodied work that, like the opening sonata, contains wonderful melodies and rich scoring. Williams provided a liquid, silky-smooth horn line throughout the opening andante movement, and Genualdi and McDonald had lovely two-part harmony passages. The second scherzo movement was both bold and emphatic at the outset before changing gears into a more introspective middle section and then returning to the nervous energy of the opening.
Among the loveliest playing of the afternoon was the third movement, "Adagio mesto," a somber, elegy-like piece (perhaps written in memory of Brahms' mother). full of emotion, built on a strong piano line, with nice duet passages for horn and violin. The fourth movement, "Finale," gallops along quite briskly and creates more sound than one would expect from only three instruments, especially instruments with as widely differing colors as brass, string, and percussion. And as he did in the other selections during the afternoon, McDonald provided the solid foundation that tied all the music together.
Except for two of the Debussy preludes, the program could hardly be called standard repertoire, although the Brahms works are considered among his best chamber compositions. And the Chicago Chamber Musicians exhibited world-class musicianship, along with warmth and superb balance, in this most enjoyable program.