Peoples’ Symphony Presents a Stellar Music from Marlboro Ensemble

Actually, I’ve never been let down by any Music from Marlboro Ensemble presented by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts over the years, but the group that performed at Washington Irving High School on Saturday, April 26, 2014, was about the best I’ve heard. The core group was a string quartet made up of violinists Itamar Zorman and Robin Scott, violist Samuel Rhodes, and cellist Brook Speltz. The normal procedure at the Marlboro Music Festival summer program is to form chamber ensembles made up of several young musicians and a respected veteran. In this case, the veteran, Samuel Rhodes, is a longtime member of the Juilliard String Quartet. The ensembles then spend their summer developing their interpretation and performance of several substantial repertory pieces, and the best groups are sent out on tour during the regular concert season. Introducing this program, Peoples’ Symphony Manager Frank Salomon indicated that the directors of Marlboro had especially praised the performances of the Berg Lyric Suite and the Dvorak Piano Quintet (with pianist Cynthia Raim) that were presented by this ensemble during the summer festivals of the past few years. And I can hear why!

I found the performance of the Berg Lyric Suite by the string quartet to be absolutely revelatory! I have heard recordings of this piece, but had never encountered it in counter before. Despite its early date of composition – 1926 – it is hardly an easy nut for an early 21st century audience to crack, as it emanates from the height of the 12-tone compositional madness of the 2nd Viennese School propagated by Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg frequently said, however, that the music of himself and his colleagues would eventually find its place once musicians had figured out how to play it! And these kids, abetted by Rhodes, have figured it out. This was a passionately convinced performance that made music of what in other hands can just sound like random discords. Somebody should get these folks into a recording studio pronto! I found the performance totally absorbing and convincing as music, which is saying a lot for this piece.

And the Dvorak: This was a big, warm romantic rendition of a big romantic piece. Brook Speltz, the cellist, was particularly impressive in his big solos, and pianist Raim produced beautiful sounds from the piano at all dynamic levels. I was captivated. (On the other hand, I could comment that PSC performers seem to have a soft spot for this piece, since I think I have heard it several times over recent years, and it would be nice to have some more variety over time in these programs. But, that said, a great performance of this piece is always welcome, and Saturday’s was assuredly a great performance.)

They began with Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in Bb, Op. 50, No. 1 (1787), which was up to Haydn’s high technical standards of composition but did not strike me as particularly inspired in terms of melody and development. Some of the Haydn quartets, even in the best of hands, can be rather plain sounding, as this one was. The performers made the most that can be made of it, I think, but it was quickly forgotten in the excitement of the Berg.

These string player meshed so well that I would encourage them to find a violist of their own generation and form a permanent ensemble!

This was the last concert of the season of Peoples’ Symphony’s Arens Series at Washington Irving. It has been a splendid season, overall. I missed a few of the programs, unfortunately, but I always either find a substitute to go in my place or donate the ticket back to PSC. Two very memorable concerts on this series were the piano recitals by Alexandre Tharaud and Jeremy Denk, first rate performers who made the most of the opportunity to bring music to the masses in the democratic context of PSC – low prices in a fine high school auditorium with excellent acoustics. Any chamber music lover in NY who is not attending these concerts is missing a really good thing.

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