Live Chamber Music: The Hugo Wolf String Quartett at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall

February 15, 2015

By Don Heckman

Ashland, Oregon. The utterly irresistible appeals of string quartet music returned to Southern Oregon University’s Music Recital Hall on Friday night and Saturday afternoon in another prime presentation by Chamber Music Concerts.

The program was delivered by the extraordinarily gifted players of Vienna’s Hugo Wolf String Quartett. In the two hours of the Friday night performance, they offered an exemplary overview of more than two centuries of string quartet music at its most intriguing.

The Hugo Wolf players – violinists Sebastian Gurtler and Regis Bringolf, viola player Thomas Selditz and cellist Florian Berner – each a virtuosic artist in his own right, have been together as an ensemble for more than two decades, performing in major venues around the world. And their musically symbiotic relationship, combined with virtuosic technique and interpretive excellence, produced convincing versions of works reaching from Franz Joseph Haydn to Franz Schubert, climaxing with the premiere of a contemporary quartet commissioned by the Wolf Quartett from Austrian composer Gerhard Winkler.

The Hugo Wolff Quartet

The Hugo Wolff Quartet

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 33, often described as “the Joke Quartet.” And with good reason. Haydn was one of the important founders of the Classical string quartet structures. With this composition, however, he chose to insert some atypical, intentionally humorous twists in the harmonic scheme, clearly hoping to surprise his listeners. Add to that his use of long pauses and sudden bursts of a brief, repetitious melodic fragment. The result, for his 18th century audiences, as well as Friday night’s listeners, was amused bursts of laughter. “Don’t take everything too seriously,” he seemed to be saying in this immensely entertaining work, which was performed by the Wolf Quartett with vigorous enthusiasm.

Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, subtitled Death and the Maiden offered a far different musical mood. Composed in 1824, a few years before his death in 1828, its subtitle traces to a song he wrote in 1817. Both the quartet and the song reflect the illnesses Schubert was experiencing, along with his obsession with what he viewed, correctly, as the approaching end of his life at the early age of 31.

Understandably, his D minor Quartet is a work filled with emotional density, often juxtaposing dark, intense passages with unexpected moments of soaring lyricism. The Wolf Quartett players’ interpretation was gripping, capturing the diverse emotions with a convincing blend of affective expression and technical mastery.

The Winkler composition, identified only as String Quartet offered far different challenges. The concert’s program guide refers to his frequent use of multi-media interaction in his works, often using electronic media. In this work, however, the Wolf Quartett instrumentalists are asked to create the sort of complex textures and dense dissonant sounds often provided by electronics along with the spontaneity associated with indeterminate notation. The result was a stunning collage of sounds, played with brilliant technique by the Wolff Quartet. While the piece offered none of the Classical musical structures usually associated – even in many contemporary works – with string quartets, it was nonetheless a fascinating showcase for the Hugo Wolf String Quartett.

It’s worth noting that the Gerhard Winkler identified in the program guide as the composer of String Quartet, presumably is not the German composer, Gerhard Winkler, who was born in 1906 and died in 1977.  It’s unclear, either in the program guide or in Google, whether or not they’re related.

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Photo by Nancy Horowitz courtesy of the Hugo Wolff Quartet.

Live Music: The Tesla String Quartet at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall

January 11, 2015

By Don Heckman

Ashland, Oregon. The performance by the Tesla String Quartet Saturday afternoon at the SOU Music Recital Hall was a virtual definition of the far ranging fascinations of string quartet music.

The Tesla players – violinists Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, cellist Serafim Smigelskiy and violist Edwin Kaplan – offered an impressive program of music reaching across centuries of compositional creativity. And they did so with a superb capacity to find the inner heart of everything they played, regardless of era, style or technical demand.

The performance began, appropriately, with Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 No. 4, a definitive example of classical period composition, written in 1772. Often described as the “father of the string quartet,” Haydn was at his best with this engaging work, filling it with buoyant melodies, challenging the players’ abilities while simultaneously providing them with showcase opportunities to display their skills as both an interactive ensemble and brilliant soloists. The Tesla players captured the work’s appealing qualities from note one, led by Snyder’s leadership and Smigelsky’s emotional drive.

The Tesla Quartet (l to r) Edwin Kaplan, Serafim Smigelskiy, Ross Snyder Michelle Lie

The Tesla Quartet (l to r) Edwin Kaplan, Serafim Smigelskiy, Ross Snyder, Michelle Lie

The second work, Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44 No. 2 took the program on a leap into the Romantic era. Mendelssohn’s orchestral works were among the most appealing of the early 19th century. But, for this listener, his chamber music is heard with less enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the Tesla String Quartet deserves praise for finding the appealing aspects of the E minor Quartet and bringing life to its more dour qualities.

Interestingly, the next work on the Tesla program was 7 Aphorismen, written by 15 year old Linus Kohring, who – like Mendelssohn – is a gifted young prodigy. 7 Aphorismen is a calculatingly contemporary effort, basing its plethora of textures, timbres, distortions and percussive sounds upon every imaginable manipulation of the string instruments in the Quartet. To their credit, the Tesla players delivered every sound demanded of them. And the youthful Kohring has begun to establish his credibility as a new music adventurer. He might do well, however, to listen closely to a work such as Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3, which uses similar instrumental techniques while still communicating as a musical structure.

The piece that brought a superb climax to this engaging afternoon of music was Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59 No. 3 It is not viewed as one of the highly praised late Beethoven string quartets. But the work, nonetheless, reveals a mastery of the ensemble’s instrumentation that places it among Beethoven’s finest works for string quartet. Performed by Snyder, Lie, Smigelskiy and Kaplan, it emerged as a defining display of string quartet music at its finest.

So, as a current visitor and possible future resident of Ashland, I’m delighted to send plaudits to the Chamber Music Concerts organization for having presented the Tesla Quartet in such a diversified program, climaxing with Beethoven, staged in the acoustically rewarding setting of the Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall.

And they’ll be doing it again on Friday January 30 with a concert featuring the intriguing music of Trio Valtorna (violinist Ida Kavafian, French Horn player David Jolley and pianist Gilles Vonssatel).  If you’re fortunate enough to be near Ashland, Oregon at the end of the month, don’t miss that one.

Photo courtesy of the Tesla Quartet.

Live Chamber Music: The String Quartet of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in an “Iran a la carte” Concert

October 9, 2013

 By Don Heckman

There’s nothing quite like one of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s a la carte concerts. Presented in the elegant settings of the Los Angeles homes of diplomats from countries around the world, they feature LACO’s brilliant players in up-close and personal performances of irresistibly appealing chamber music programs.

Margaret Batjer

Margaret Batjer

Last Saturday night, Iran a la carte showcased the LACO string quartet of violinists Margaret Batjer and Tereza Stanislav, violist Roland Kato and cellist Andrew Shulman performing works by Mozart, Haydn and Iranian composer Reza Vali. Hosted by Ahmad and Haleh Gramian in their lovely home in the hills of Brentwood, the performance celebrated the 45th anniversary of LACO’s inaugural concert.

The evening began with cocktails and the first of three buffet courses of Persian cuisine. The music portion of the program followed, presented in the intimate setting of the Gramians’ stylish living room.

And the selections added another intriguing aspect to the performance. Chosen by LACO in honor of the first declaration of human rights – the 2500 year old Cyrus Cylinder on view at the Getty Villa in October – the “program of Mozart and others is dedicated to freedom, tolerance and justice.”

Tereza Stanislev

Tereza Stanislev

While Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik only reaches back to the 18th century, its deeply memorable melodies and dynamic rhythms call up a more recent expression of individual creativity.

Roland Cato

Roland Cato

So, too, for the second work on the program, Haydn’s Emperor String Quartet in C Major, with its captivating emphasis upon the fascinating interplay of individual voices within the ensemble.

Finally, the program ended with Folk Songs, a new work for string quartet by Iranian composer Vali, adding yet another broad slant of free flying imagination underscoring the theme of “freedom, tolerance and justice.”

Full credit goes to the LACO string players for bringing this appealing program to life. Whether it was the familiarity of the Mozart and Haydn classics or the far more unusual semi-tonal sounds of the Vali quartet, it was a sequence of music to remember.

Andrew Shulman

Andrew Shulman

And each of the LACO quartet members made their own superbly articulated contributions, with special notice going to cellist Shulman for his brilliant soloing within the semi-tonal, melismatic demands of the Vali quartet piece.

This engaging collection of music completed, the Iran a la carte program ended with a climactic buffet of exquisite Persian food. Like the other programs in the a la carte schedule, it was the perfect blend of music, culture and cuisine.

The next LACO program in the series – France a la carte– takes place on Thursday, Oct. 17. For more information about it, click HERE.

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Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Live Music at the Hollywood Bowl: “Midsummer Mozart” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Nicholas McGegan and violinist Henning Kraggerud

August 24, 2012

By Don Heckman

“Midsummer Mozart” was the headline for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Thursday night Hollywood Bowl concert – the second this week with English conductor Nicholas McGegan at the podium. And, as with his dynamic leadership of a Haydn program on Tuesday, he again guided the talented Philharmonic players through a strikingly authentic set of interpretations.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Any well-performed summer evening of Mozart at the Bowl is a pleasure, and this one was no exception, despite the fairly conservative choice of selections. Opening with Symphony No. 32, the first set closed with the Violin Concerto No. 4. The second half was devoted to the Chaconne from Idomeno and Symphony No. 39.

All were displays of Mozart’s extraordinary blend of lyrical melodiousness and brilliant mastery of sonata form. But one couldn’t help but wonder why the program didn’t offer any of the more well-known, much loved Mozart classics – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Piano Concerto No. 21, the Overture to Marriage of Figaro, Symphony No. 40 to name only a few. Yes, I know… from a producer’s or a programmer’s point of view, the works may be too frequently heard. But there’s no reason why – in a “Midsummer Mozart” program at the Hollywood Bowl, a time for relaxed, laid-back listening, at least one Greatest Hit shouldn’t have been on the bill.

That said, there were ample pleasures in the program. Among them: the lovely woodwind passages, beautifully performed, in both the Symphonies; the Austrian folk dance passage in Symphony No. 39, in which Mozart’s love for the clarinet is displayed in a delightful clarinet duo; the rich textures of the ballet music from Idomeneo.

Henning Kraggerud

And, best of all, the performance of the Violin Concerto No. 4 by Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud. In an evening filled with beautiful music, the Concerto, superbly played, Kraggerud stole the show. Much honored throughout Europe, he has also been seen with some frequency in the U.S., but this was his debut appearance at the Bowl. And the first thought that came to mind after his performance was simply – how soon will the Philharmonic bring him back.

Composed by Mozart while he was 19, the Concerto No. 4 reflects his deep understanding of the violin’s potential. Investing the Concerto with ample opportunities for technical display, he also incorporated passages urging the performer to freely explore its expressive lyricism

Kraggerud took advantage of every possibility the music offered, from soaring, high harmonic melodies to rhythmically surging double-stops and rich interaction with the orchestra. In sum, it was one of the fine solo appearances of recent memory.

No wonder the audience demanded an encore – which turned out to be a solo piece by a Norwegian composer.  And no surprise that McGegan, at least a foot shorter than the towering Kraggerud, hugged him with sincere enthusiasm at the close of the Concerto. As I said, the high point of the night. It was Mozart as, one suspects, Mozart himself would have wanted it played.

Here, There & Everywhere: The Glendale Philharmonic, Ruslan Biryukov and Mikael Avetisyan

January 6, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles, spread across several counties, embracing towns and cities with identities in their own right, has always been both a challenging and a rewarding place to hear music of every conceivable identity.

The driving, of course, is another issue.  An appealing program in, say, Pasadena or Irvine can be a long haul for music fans in the West Valley or Santa Monica.

But the upside is that more and more communities all across the balkanized map of L.A. are beginning to take charge of their own creative environment via support for performing arts programs and – in the best instances – with the establishment of resident musical organizations.

The Glendale Philharmonic

The Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra is a fine example.  On Sunday afternoon, in the First Baptist Church of Glendale, the 35-member ensemble celebrates its second anniversary with a program of Prokofiev, Haydn and Leroy Anderson.

If that sounds like an intriguing mix, the actual compositions, as well as the soloists, make it an even more potentially delightful event.  The Prokofiev piece is Peter and the Wolf, with the narrative read by stand-up comedian Emo Philips, whose child-like voice and manner should provide the right touch of seasoning for the perennial favorite .

Anderson’s Concerto for Typewriter has been entertaining pops audiences for years, with its positioning of a manual typewriter – with the Philharmonic’s secretary in the solo chair, punching out one fast paced rhythmic sequence after another — amid a whirling array of orchestral sounds.

The centerpiece of the concert is Haydn’s challenging Cello Concerto in D, featuring the highly praised Russian cellist Ruslan Biryukov, the starring figure in the still early history of the Glendale Philharmonic.

Ruslan Biryukov

Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Biryukov is a product of the Baku Music Academy, the Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory and the USC Thornton School of Music.  At thirty one, he is well established as a charismatic performer.  “He has everything,” says Peter Mark, Artistic Director of the Virginia Opera, ”technique, virtuosity, personality, communication, an attractive and articulate presence.”

More than that, Biryukov is also the founder of the Glendale Philharmonic and the Artistic Director of Positive Motions, the company that produces its concerts.

Mikael Avetisyan

Toward that end, he works closely with the Philharmonic’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, Mikael Avetisyan, a former conductor of the Yerevan State Conservatory and the St. Petersburg State Conservatory.

To top off both the holiday and the birthday celebration, the Philharmonic will also perform holiday songs and arias.  And there will reportedly be enough birthday cake from Billy’s Deli for everyone in the audience to share a piece.

In other words, expect a richly entertaining and celebratory evening of music from the Glendale Philharmonic, Biryukov, Philips and Avetisyan.  At its best, the performance symbolizes the pleasures that are being provided – in more and more areas — by the growing local support for local music around Los Angeles.

Maybe it’s time for those of us in other parts of the L.A. counties to look around – as Biryukov did – at our own communities, to see if we can follow the path, raise the money and make use of the template that the Glendale Philharmonic has created in just two brief years.

As Biryukov explained it, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “If someone told me three months ago I would be giving an interview about starting an orchestra, I would have laughed. It’s ridiculous, right?”

Apparently not.  And give Birykov and Avetsiyan credit for making it all real.   


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