Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Rome Chamber Music Festival - Beethoven & Chausson - 11/21/21

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky) 
Lawrence Dutton: Viola 
Aubree Oliverson: Violin 
Sara Scanlon: Cello 
Augusta Schubert: Violin 
Ernest Chausson: Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21 
Anna Black: Violin 
Robert McDuffie: Violin 
Matous Peruska: Violin 
Daniele Valabrega: Viola 
Kristina Vocetkova: Cello 
Derek Wang: Piano 

The end of last week were gloriously sunny and warm here in the Eternal City, which prompted me to venture down the blissfully less trodden path to the fascinating neighborhoods of Aventino, Testaccio and Ostiense, the latter being where I connected my previous life to my current life with a supremely tasty focaccia in the world’s biggest Eataly location (Imagine that: Eating lunch at Eataly in Italy!). 
Eventually, an invitation to the exclusive opening night of the 18th edition of the Rome Chamber Music Festival at the Auditorium Conciliazione on Sunday evening unexpectedly fell on my lap, and I could not have imagined a better way to wrap up a fantastic weekend than in the company of promising young musicians who had been hand-picked from all over the world, including The Robert McDuffie Center for Strings of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, to participate in the prestigious De Simone & Partners Young Artist Program in Rome. 
The founder and artistic director of this terrific endeavor is no less than internationally renowned and incorrigibly adventurous violinist Robert McDuffie, who understandably fell in love with Rome while making his professional debut here 27 years ago, and has clearly found the perfect excuse to keep on coming back. I mean, why bother throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain if you can come up with your own annual festival? 

And just like that, after a short opening speech by the man himself and a short introduction to the opening number by violinist Aubree Oliverson, the five-day music feast was kicked off with Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet, a stunningly big, bold and beautiful work that the composer paradoxically wrote when he was already showing signs of impending deafness. Whether or not this ordeal is what persuaded him not to hold anything back remains debatable, but the result is indisputably dazzling. 
On Sunday, the endlessly ambiguous Allegro vivace, the mournfully obsessive Andante con moto, the pleasantly light-footed Menuetto, and the no-holds-barred explosion of breathless speed races of the Allegro molto were all brought to life with plenty of brilliance, vigor and aplomb. With the additional advantage of the auditorium’s commendable acoustics, Beethoven’s music sounded as fresh and exciting as ever. 
And if the violist looked somewhat familiar to me, there was a good reason for that: He turned out to be Lawrence Dutton, a long-time member of the Emerson String Quartet, one of the most prominent ensembles of chamber music whose members are planning to disband next season after a four-decade career, a couple of personnel changes and a bunch of awards. With a coach like that, it is no wonder that the students brought their A game to the stage and kept it throughout the challenging 30-minute piece. 
Not to be outdone, the next ensemble wasted no time launching into a dynamite reading of Chausson’s extended, complex, and yet spontaneously engaging Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. McDuffie himself kept busy fulfilling his double duty as coach and solo violin, but all those responsibilities did not prevent him from effortlessly matching the boundless enthusiasm of his young charges while continuously helping to bring out the best in them. 
Not that it was such a tall order to begin with as they all seemed more than ready, willing and able. And sure enough, they proved to be experts at voluptuously unfurling the gorgeous melodies, vividly highlighting the vibrant colors, and firmly mastering the mood changes, keeping the momentum briskly going while also making sure to give the music enough space to breathe. The première of what is considered Chausson’s first mature chamber work was allegedly a big success, and Sunday evening’s performance of it was definitely one too. 

After this exceptional musical evening, the return to reality was kind of eerie as I was walking towards St-Peter’s Square on my way back home, and passing by equally impressive numbers of homeless people setting up camp for the night, seagulls gorging on discarded food, tourists admiring the floodlit basilica, and police officers keeping a watchful eye over everybody. There really are no dull moments in Rome.

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