What might have been a night of dry British music was instead delightfully fresh
Reviewed by Michael Kellerman, Fri., May 6, 2011
First Unitarian Universalist Church
All eyes and ears were focused on Great Britain last week, as the Royal Wedding took our collectively short attention spans hostage with a continuous news cycle of the pageantry, pomp, and
circumstance of celebrity. Clever then for the Austin Chamber Music Center to program an all-British concert at this time, ensuring its trademark pairing of chamber music and cultural relevancy.
The mood was mainly light and the dress casual for this last concert of the center's 29th season, which kicked off with a bit of situational comedy from Artistic Director Michelle Schumann, setting up the evening with wit and flair. From a glance at the program, I couldn't help but wonder at the outset if she was putting in the extra effort as a means of balancing a potentially dry musical offering: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar, and the little-known John Moeran. Though I wasn't entirely wrong, the musical moments that followed offered some delightful surprises that dashed my stereotype.
Joining Schumann for the performance was the Carpe Diem String Quartet, which bills itself as "the premier American indie string quartet." The quartet is exciting to watch, particularly violinist Charles Wetherbee, who is emotive and almost dances through his performances.
First up was Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending," arranged by UT alum Rob Deemer, a touching work in the composer's famously pensive, lyrical voice that features the first violin throughout. Wetherbee's gorgeous, sweet tones captured the nostalgic mood of the piece, especially in the pastoral solo flourishes. Vaughan Williams' use of pentatonic modality hinted at Asian inspiration in the opening moments, adding some exotic undertones to a balanced and lovely performance.
Next up was the Moeran String Quartet. Moeran, the son of an Irish clergyman, was known throughout his life as a collector of English folk songs, and at one time he lived among the gypsies who roamed the English countryside. The Quartet was dramatic, earnest, and colored with folk influences and modal transition throughout. The piece had so many tonalities and parts that it was clear Moeran had many ideas to share. I would love to hear more. The players of the Carpe Diem Quartet gave an exciting and solid performance, introducing the audience to the work with an air of discovery.
To introduce the Elgar Piano Quintet in A Minor, Schumann let us know that, based on the writings of Elgar's wife, this work was inspired by the notion of evil Spanish monks who are damned to live as sinister trees for eternity. This strange but intriguing intro certainly piqued interest and made for a unique transition to the cool, ominous tones of the first movement. Later in the movement, Elgar introduced Spanish material, which was unfortunately schmaltzy, making it clear that, unlike his predecessors on the program, Elgar was best when he kept to his own musical roots. The adagio second movement was lovely but seemed to go nowhere, indicative more of Elgar's compositional style than the performance itself. In the third movement, Schumann shone with great piano flourishes and entertaining responses from her fellow performers. Reverence is due to all the performers for a tremendous effort to lift the piece, which on its own simply fails to excite.
But this Moeran guy – I want to hear more from him. From a quick Wikipedia search, one learns that he was known for his regular drunken revelry and close friendship with fellow composer Peter Warlock. To Schumann and the Carpe Diem Quartet, many thanks for making the introduction! It's exciting to see that 30 years has done nothing to diminish the Austin Chamber Music Center's ability to bring something fresh and new to its audience. Or should I say its fans?