Friday, May 26, 2017

Ensemble Connect Performs Mozart and Beethoven

On Tuesday evening I went to Juilliard for the last time this season to hear Ensemble Connect, the fellowship program jointly sponsored by Juilliard and Carnegie Hall in association with the NYC Department of Education, perform an evening of chamber music.  There were only two works on the program, but they were by the greeatest composers of the Classical era, Mozart and Beethoven.

The program opened with Mozart's String Quintet No. 3 in C major, K. 515 (1787).  Though Mozart in his Haydn Quartets showed himself a master of the genre, I've always considered his string quintets (with an additional viola as the fifth instrument) to be an even greater accomplishment.  It's not clear why Mozart initially approached this form, which was extremely uncommon in the eighteenth century when thinner textures were strongly preferred, but it may have been simply that the increased instrumenation allowed him to work out more fully his musical ideas than was possible with the quartet form.  This would seem to be confirmed by the sheer length of the K. 515's opening movement, It must also be remembered that the composer was himself an expert violist who chose that instrument when playing quartets with Haydn.  He was thus better able to judge the possibilities offered by the viola and to use its low register to stunning effect.  Mozart's appreciation of the different qualities offered by violin and viola had previously formed the basis of his Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364 and he explored them again in the interplay between the two instruments in the quintet's slow andante movement.

The K. 515 was completed only a month before the K. 516 in G minor and the two are a study in contrasts.  While the K. 516 is a truly tragic piece, as the use of the minor key would indicate, the K. 515 is a much brighter and more optimistic work.  This is especially true of the final movement allegro when compared to the adagio that closes the K. 516.  In that regard it may or may not be significant that Mozart wrote both quintets during the same period as Don Giovanni, an opera giocoso that by definition included both humor and tragedy placed one against the other.

The quintet was performed by Mari Lee and Rebecca Anderson, violins, Andrew Gonzalez and Maren Rothfritz, violas, and Madeline Fayette, cello.

After a brief intermission, the program closed with Beethoven's Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1797) for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass.  At the time he composed it, Beethoven was still in his early period and solidifying his repuatation in Vienna as an up-and-coming composer.  The Septet must have seemed to him a perfect vehicle to accomplish this end.  Based on one of Mozart's greatest chamber works, the String Trio, K. 563, composed only nine years before and also in the key of E-flat major, the Septet was never designed to be anything more than a pleasing divertimento of the type the Viennese so much enjoyed.  (Mozart's own trio, though also so designated, was much too profound to merit the term.)  And as such the Septet was entirely successful.  Too much so as far as Beethoven was concerned.  Later in his career, he came to abhor the work because he felt it distracted attention from the far more serious masterpieces that followed it.  Not that the Septet was in any way simplistic.  That Beethoven did not blindly follow the form of the K. 563 can seen in the introductions he wrote to the first and last movements and the substitution of a scherzo for the second minuet.  The result was extremely accomplished while still remaining wholly likeable and pleasant to hear.  As such, it provided a  genial ending to this recital, one that left the audience smiling as they left the hall.

The musicians who performed the Septet were Bixby Kennedy, clarinet, Rémy Taghavi, bassoon, Nicolee Kuester, horn, Adelya Nartadjieva, violin, Maren Rothfritz, viola, Julia Yang, cello, and Lizzie Burns, bass.

In the past, I went very frequently to hear Ensemble Connect (then known as Ensemble ACJW), not only to their performances at Paul Hall but to those given at Weill Recital Hall as well.  Tuesday evening, however, was the first time this season I'd an opportuntiy to attend one of their recitals.  At least part of the reason for this has to do with the ensemble's turnover.   The fellowship program only lasts two years, so the full roster of musicians rotates biannually.  Just as the audience becomes accustomed to hearing one group, it's replaced in its entirety.  This can be disconcerting to audiences who are used to following classical ensembles over long periods, sometimes decades.  It also makes it difficult for the group to develop a distinctive style of its own.  On the other hand, the Ensemble Connect's quality of musicianship is always superb and, of course, it's always refreshing to come across new talents.

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