This weekend Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in New York presented two excellent concerts. In the Arens Series at Washington Irving High School, we heard the Johannes String Quartet, joined with guests from the Guarneri String Quartet, violist John Dalley and cellist Peter Wiley. In the Festival Series at Town Hall, we heard the East Coast Chamber Orchestra. Each concert include one unusual “modern” work, although these were not necessarily the real highlights of the programs.
The Johannes Quartet is one of many fine chamber groups that have grown out of acquaintances formed at the Marlboro Music Festival, a summer program that brings together the most talented young musicians with a group of experienced professionals to study and play together. I’ve heard them before at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, and was eagerly anticipating this program.
They led off with “Homunculus for String Quartet” by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is being heavily promoted these days by the music critics of the New York Times as a logical successor to Alan Gilbert as music director of the NY Philharmonic. I was present decades ago at Mr. Salonen’s debut with the Philharmonic, and remember going to the green room to congratulate him at that time. He subsequently became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, while retaining important ties with orchestras in Europe. He stepped down from the L.A. position after a long and successful run, commenting that he wanted to spend much more time composing. This piece was one of the first fruits of his stepped-up compositional activity. We had a special treat last night at Peoples’ Symphony because Salonen was present to speak about his piece prior to the performance. He explained that the short duration was in response to the particular demands of the commission — to produce a short piece that would balance out a program of two full string quartets — so he wrote a quartet in miniature and named it “Homunculus” inspired by the primitive theory of human reproduction that posited the notion that each sperm is actually a tiny person waiting to be incubated. He pointed out the reduction ad absurdum consequences of such a theory, which brought quite a laugh from the audience. The piece turned out to be very listener-friendly — even more so than his large-scale orchestral works, which tend to be more busy and dissonant than this quartet. I would not venture to say much more about it after a first hearing, other than that it certainly left me with the desire to hear it again and get better acquainted.
The first half was concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80, a work written by the composer in the last year of his life – 1847. But that does not mean it is a “late work,” because unfortunately Mendelssohn died in his mid-30s. As with Mozart, there is really no “late” period for this composer, alas. The quartet begins in a vigorous manner, somewhat like the Salonen piece, making it a logical progression, and the Johannes gave it an excellent performance.
But the real treat for me was to hear a rare live performance after intermission of Johannes Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2, Op. 36, with Dalley and Wiley joining the group. Because of the need for extra players, it is unusual to hear the Brahms sextets in concert. They are extraordinary pieces, so hearing this is a real event. Indeed, the piece has a symphonic feel, which was well projected by the ensemble last night.
PSC’s winning streak continued with ECCO this afternoon. This is a conductorless ensemble of 18 string players who come together several times a year to work up programs for their own pleasure in creative interaction. Many of them are parts of the string sections of major symphony orchestras or established chamber ensembles, but they enjoy the special freedom of tackling larger scale string orchestra works in chamber music style. The results are very impressive.
They began with an early work of Osvaldo Golijov, “Last Round” from 1996, a piece that put me in mind at times of Astor Piazzolla. They played it with lots of energy and polish. This was followed by a tender Canzonetta for strings by Jean Sibelius, and an inflation to string orchestra size of Leos Janacek’s “Kreutzer Sonata” String Quartet. I have to confess to a blind spot with Janacek: although I like the sound of his music, I usually find my mind drifting off during it. So I don’t have a strong recollection of this performance.
But after intermission came the real treat: the piece that is the trademark of this group, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 48. I’ve heard them play it before, and have their recording, but each time I hear them it is different and better than the previous performance. This performance was truly magnificent. The combination of precision, vigor, and spontaneity, was entrancing. The third movement Elegy held the audience breathless. While listening, I thought — just as I had each previous time — that this must be one of the greatest pieces ever written. And that is surely the result of a superior performance as well as the genius of Tchaikovsky!
I hope they will continue to seek out new repertory, will continue to develop their extraordinary interpretation of the Tchaikovsky, and will return to PSC. I would love to hear them play Kilar’s Orawa, as it would be a perfect showpiece for them!