There are many excellent chamber music concerts in our area, but every once-in-a-while there comes one that goes off the scale. Ever since it was started in 1950, the chamber music summer workshop in Marlboro, Vermont-summer home of the old Budapest String Quartet-has signified the highest quality in the art of chamber music. A meeting place for the best students and best teachers, in 1965 it spun off Musicians from Marlboro, a flexible touring group adept in playing chamber music for all instrument combinations.
Ten of these musicians came to Raleigh's A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater under the auspices of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. Eight of them - violinists Joseph Lin, Min-Young Kim and Judy Kang, violists Richard O'Neill and Hueng-Wei Huang, bassist Kurt Murokai, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and horn player Patrick Pridemore - are young rising stars. The other two, cellist David Soyer and bassoonist William Winstead, are veteran performers and long time teachers.
It was one of the last concerts on a long and tiring tour, but you sure couldn't tell. Young or old, the playing was nothing short of amazing. From the opening bars of the Debussy String Quartet, performed by Lin, Kang, O'Neill and Soyer, the phrasing, coordination and interplay held the audience enthralled. Especially beautiful was the contrast between the sprightly second movement with its dominating pizzicato and the slow movement, where much of the expressiveness comes from the pauses which the musicians timed perfectly to maintain the tension.
It was fun to watch Soyer, who was celebrating his 79th birthday. Always the dedicated teacher, he nodded and smiled at the other musicians whenever anyone played an exceptionally beautiful phrase.
Franz Schubert's Octet in F, D.803, is rarely performed, mainly because it is difficult and costly to assemble eight players good enough to do justice to this hour-long piece. One of the few works Schubert wrote on aristocratic commission, it was composed for an amateur clarinetist, Count Ferdinand von Troyer, who asked for a companion piece to Beethoven's popular Septet, Op.20. Schubert used the same instrumentation- violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon and French horn-but added a second violin. He saw to it that each player got a minute in the sun, with special emphasis on the clarinet, the instrument of the commissioner.
It is challenging to coordinate eight players without a conductor, and only performers who are familiar with one another's cues can maintain the precision necessary for this work. The Marlboro players, with violinists Lin and Kim, played as if under an inspired conductor. Schubert wrote the work at a feverish pace while ill and broke, but most of it is youthful and sunny, in places dreamy, in places like a peasant dance. Only in the introduction to the last movement does his despair break through, and the sudden switch in mood after over 45 minutes can easily trip the performers-but not this ensemble. The sudden dark mood came like a cold shower and even the cheerful march theme that followed did not completely dispel this mood. Special mention goes to McGill, recently appointed as Associate Principal Clarinet of the Cincinnati Orchestra, whose expressive and precise playing was simply spectacular.
When can we have them back?