The sub-series of the Eastern Music Festival named "Friends and Great Performers" is basically their chamber music concerts, and the final one occurred on Wednesday, July 26, at Dana Auditorium. This was an event as grand as the big, splashy orchestral programs, as it involved an artist of worldwide stature, his handpicked protégés, and a selection of works that are all masterpieces and audience favorites.
Pinchas Zukerman, along with several other musical household names like Itzhak Perlman, is an Israeli-born musician who through the mentorship of Isaac Stern moved to the United States and eventually attained the highest level of musicianship and musical notoriety. Equally proficient on violin and viola, Zukerman reached that peak very early and can be seen in several existing films of chamber music sessions with Perlman, pianist Daniel Barenboim and the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Equally known now as a conductor and a soloist, Zukerman also extends his considerable skill and knowledge to teaching younger generations – and doing so by getting right in the trenches with them. The Zukerman Chamber Players are four fellow string players plus Zukerman himself, but don't get the impression that these young musicians are just merely very talented amateurs who happened to be noticed by the master and picked out of the crowd to play a few concerts. They have been performing as a group since 2003 and have toured all over the world in addition to having successful solo careers in their own right. Additional info about Zukerman as well as this group can be found at http://www.kirshdem.com/ (their booking agents).
The program started small and added additional heft as the evening advanced. First up was one of the gems of the limited repertoire for violin and cello duo. Not that long after Ravel wrote his superb duo, Kodály premiered his Opus 7 knuckle buster in Salzburg in 1924. Zukerman and his wife, cellist Amanda Forsyth, came out and launched right into the rhapsodic Hungarian-tinged opening of the first movement. Kodály avoids the timeworn habit of featuring the violin just because it's part of the group and instead gives us a beautifully balanced composition with equally difficult parts for both players. This work is a dialogue in the truest sense of the word, and that was transmitted from the stage in a lush and sometimes primitive manner. There goes the theory that you should begin a program with a work not so technically demanding. This was just the start of a long night for Zukerman and Forsyth.
Middle voices were added to the mix as violists Jethro Marks and Ashan Pillai, along with violinist Jessica Linnebach, joined Zukerman and Forsyth for one of the six unique works by Mozart known as his "viola quintets." This one, a late work in D major, is a perfect example of how playfulness and profundity can coexist. From the opening question-mark phrasing of the solo cello to the thrilling romp of the finale, this is a shining example of both the purity of the "classical style" and Mozart at his finest. The ensemble captured this spirit and performed with the innocence and abandonment of children at play, combined with the technical assurance of seasoned virtuosos.
Brahms, Schumann and Dvorák are the Big Three who composed the best-known compositions combining piano with a string quartet. Whenever you get these forces together it is a cinch that one of these will be performed. Pianist Benjamin Hochman joined the previous ensemble (minus second violist Marks) in a captivating and thrilling trip through Dvorák's Op. 81 Quintet. This was actually the second such quintet, in the same key of A major, written by Dvorák, but this one would have cemented his status even had he not written another composition. It has almost become a tired cliché to talk of his folk roots and use of Czech indigenous music, but this work fuses the common (not derogatory) with high art, with uncanny skill and seamlessness. Every player milked the beautiful melodies for emotion without becoming maudlin and clicked on all cylinders in the fast, virtuosic passages. During the andante movement, second violinist Linnebach came in early on one of her entrances and quickly recovered. Probably 95% of the audience did not notice, but she was noticeably upset. After the movement was over, Zukerman turned and spoke to her – she smiled and regained her composure. This was a great moment where the master knew just what to do to keep the level of performance at its high level.