Janacek: String Quartet No 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"
Mozart: String Quintet in E-flat Major, K 614
Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
Unless you're a fan of Christmas-themed entertainment, December typically means slim pickings on the music scene. It is not all bad though, as I'm happily making the most of this well-deserved break by spending some quality time with... my CD collection. Nothing like a little digital homework to enjoy the Real Thing even more. But if most private venues are mercilessly holiday-oriented, the Smithsonian is coming to the rescue with promising chamber music concerts at the Freer and the Library of Congress, among others. Therefore, last night I was part of the crowded Freer auditorium for a performance by the crème de la crème of the Marlboro on Tour musicians. Although they're not household names yet, there's no doubt these youngsters are outstanding artists in their own right and well on the way to bigger things in the near future.
The first featured composer was Janacek whose dark and powerful Jenufa was easily the best surprise of the last WNO season. In this string quartet, he is exploring one of his favorite causes: male despotism towards women. Inspired by Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and his own opera Katya Kabanova, the four movements closely follow his heroine's convoluted story, from yearning to euphoria before ending in anguish and resignation. Accordingly, beautiful harmonies were sprinkled by nagging spams and strange timbres, interestingly mixing romantic and Czech folk traditions.
Next was Mozart's quintet, and new fresh faces appeared on the stage, except for the impressive Jessica Lee, who would end up playing in all three pieces on the program. Her slight frame may have looked a bit wobbly on her sky-high heels, but once she sat down and grabbed her violin, all insecurity quickly evaporated and she fiercely demonstrated more than solid skills and endurance. In all fairness, all her companions were equally impressive and delivered a meticulously precise and effortlessly elegant performance.
But the best was yet to come, and the last work of the evening was Mendelssohn's remarkable octet. Composed when young Felix was a mere 16-year old as the prelude to his famous overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, it starts with a sweepingly romantic first movement featuring exquisite melodies and a soaring theme for the first violin. It is meant to be played "con fuoco," and there was definitely plenty of fire, but also lightness and lyricism, to be had last night. Things cooled off a bit during the andante, and perked up again in the scherzo, which was Mendelssohn's trademark "fairy music" at its best, masterfully combining ebullience and softness, although it was ironically enough inspired by the Walpurgisnacht scene of Goethe's Faust, thus referring to a traditional witches' festival in Germany. The eight string instruments gave the music a multi-layered complexity worthy of a symphony, and the first violin, the terrific Scott St. John, led the tight ensemble in a seamlessly dazzling performance.
"Praise youth and it will prosper" says the Irish proverb. So let's just hope that the long, enthusiastic ovation these young musicians received encouraged them on their chosen path to fulfillment and prosperity. In the meantime, thank you for the heads-up and the glorious evening!