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Brentano String Quartet; Olmos Ensemble

Chamber music, high-minded and not

April 8, 2014

Somewhat odd programs, well played by the visiting Brentano String Quartet and the local Olmos Ensemble, were on the chamber-music bill for Sunday and Monday, respectively.

The Brentano may be remembered for a superb 2006 concert of landmark works that ranged from deep to deeper, comprising Schubert’s agitated  “Quartettsatz,” Shostakovich’s mournful Quartet No. 15 and Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor, with its slow movement a portrait of debilitating illness and recovery.

Returning on Sunday to Temple Beth-El for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society, the Brentano started off in a similarly high-minded vein, with Mendelssohn’s Quartet in D, Op. 44, No. 1, and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 11, but then let its hair down after intermission with a series of short pieces, several of them frothy.

The players were the same as before: Violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee.

The traits that most came to the fore in the performances were intelligence, unity, and attention to stylistic distinctions. The troupe’s Mendelssohn was elegant, intimate  and very delicately shaded, with a dynamic range that skewed to the quiet end. The players applied a good deal of apt tempo rubato in the slow movement, but Mr. Steinberg took rhythmic liberties that slightly bothered me in the allegretto. In the Shostakovich, a memorial to Beethoven Quartet second violinist Vasily Shirinsky, the playing was more aggressive and intense, and fearless in expressing the work’s dissonances. Those plangent moments aside, the ensemble sound was warm, silken and beautifully matched.

There were some serious moments in the second half. Elliott Carter’s Elegy dates from 1943, before he developed the superimposed rhythms and tonal freedom of his mature style. The Elegy is conservative and very much under the sway of Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland — a lovely, well-crafted piece, but not necessarily what one wants from Carter.  Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile from the String Quartet No. 1 got a creamy performance, most notable for Mr. Steinberg’s sultry low register. Two Dvorak Waltzes from Op. 50 were stylishly played.

Two of the pieces also appeared, serendipitously, on Camerata San Antonio’s concert of a week earlier — Shostakovich’s mordant Polka and Charles Ives’s bizarre Scherzo (“Holding Your Own).” Steve Mackey arranged the opening and closing salvos — “I Feel Pretty Pretty” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and “I’ve Grown So Ugly,” by the Louisiana blues legend Robert Pete Williams. That last item was played with no less a sense of style than the Mendelssohn and Shostakovich monuments. In the highly unlikely event that things ever start to dry up for the Brentano on the chamber music circuit, the troupe should still find a warm welcome at any self-respecting New Orleans cathouse. 

I had been looking forward to Monday night’s concert by the Olmos Ensemble, mainly because the program was to include Arnold Schoenberg’s  Wind Quintet, an undeniably great work and one of the pioneering ventures in the 12-tone method. Alas, that work was scrubbed (maybe to be played next season) and replaced by a charming but much slighter wind quintet by Paul Taffanel.

The concert in First Unitarian Universalist Church opened with  Ottorino Respighi’s early two-movement Wind Quintet, from the waning of the 19th century and the composers teens. Respighi is most widely known for his three coloristic orchestral tone poems inspired by Rome. The Wind Quintet is a strange piece, only two movements, the second of which (a theme and variations) seems to end in mid-sentence. But the first is well made, notable for a meandering, descending theme that, for my money, is worth more than all the splashy fountains and glittery pines that would come later.

By default, the major work on the program was American composer Kenneth Fuchs’s “Autumn Rhythm: Idyll for Woodwind Quintet After a Painting by Jackson Pollock.”

People are entitled to respond in their own ways to art, and Pollock’s gigantic drip paintings are perhaps especially open to interpretation. Still, Fuchs’s music seems to have little in common with the contrapuntal complexity, fluidity, energy and audacity of Pollock’s 1950 canvas. The composer’s American lyricism and harmonies, somewhat updating Aaron Copland, might relate more closely to Pollock’s teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, but only superficially — Benton’s roiling forms and Pollock’s share the same DNA, and it is the roiling that Fuchs misses almost entirely. On its own terms, the music is adept, neatly structured and lively — but with the sort of liveliness that bears the same relationship to life as truthiness bears to truth.

The performances were strong all around. The Taffanel work was most welcome for giving ample opportunity for flutist Martha Long to shine, which she did, brightly.  Her estimable colleagues: Oboist Mark Ackerman, clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg, bassoonist Sharon Kuster and hornist Jeff Garza.

Mike Greenberg