A respectable crowd enjoyed exceptional performances Sunday at the New World Symphony’s first chamber music concert of the 2014-15 season. The sun-dappled stage lighting accented with aqua mirrored the late-summer afternoon outside, complementing the program’s sunny music.
Nine new fellows including harpist Julia Coronelli debuted with a transparently stunning rendition of Debussy’s Sacred and Profane Dances. Perfectly blended opening octaves of the “Sacred Dance,” expert communication and exquisite string techniques from the small orchestra created a supportive background for Coronelli’s full-bodied, superbly voiced harp passages. The modal, wry waltz of the “Profane Dance,” interrupted by explosive bursts of harp arpeggios, framed the musicians’ skillfully traded counterpoint.
Transparency of a different kind marked English composer Robin Holloway’s Serenade in C, from 1979, which received its belated U.S. premiere Sunday. From the treacherously exposed opening duos of the Marcia, wonderfully recalling Stravinsky’s colors, Holloway put the octet through their stylistic paces over five movements. These were NWS’ heavy-hitters, third- and fourth-year fellows, whose mature delivery revealed the depth of the work.
The Menuetto alla tarantella featured frenzied string passagework alternating with larger ensemble textures under Chris Jackson’s caramel-colored horn lines. Brad Whitfield’s flutter-tongued clarinet and Noah Reitman’s walking bass added a jazzy touch.
The central Andante’s variations on a low string and bassoon theme evolved quickly into a tango, with Jackson’s lustrous horn solo supported by full octet before pulling back into a decidedly Classical vein. A final pastoral variation foreshadowed the ensuing Menuetto — Trio, with its Beethovenian sequences and tutti playing. In the Trio, tender Romantic phrases were interspersed with well-executed modern syncopated fragments.
Holloway’s Finale reprised earlier ideas, pitting strings against winds in antiphonal exchanges. Despite its high technical demands, the octet’s execution was eminently likable, pleasing and devoid of angst.
Edward Elgar’s Quintet in A minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 84 from 1919 took a much darker turn. Described by Elgar as “ghostly,” the quintet is less a whisper and more an epic voyage into melancholy. On an overly bright piano, guest artist Anne-Marie McDermott led a tight quartet through a big romantic rendition of the 40-minute work’s extreme highs and lows.
The opening restraint in the Moderato quickly flowered into passionate quartet themes edged by McDermott’s commanding tone and flamboyant stage presence. Grand crescendi, fluid expression, and huge dynamic ranges delineated the formal sections, yet retained an elegiac mood. Gorgeous intonation and phrasing from both first violinist Clara Lee and cellist Kevin Kunkel were high points.
The Adagio’s warm string chorale in major and McDermott’s sentimental accompaniment provided some respite from the darkness. Gently undulating melodies allowed second violinist Kelly Bunch and violist Sarah Harball to contribute emotive solos as the texture built into giant waves before a return to major dispersed the clouds.
Elgar’s final Andante-Allegro also reprised themes from its first movement, moving quickly into a grand crescendo before plunging into a lush series of cascading sequences. Virtuosic flourishes showcased McDermott’s talents, and the strings achieved a nearly symphonic sound. Several notable, sparklingly iridescent ensemble passages helped to counteract the heady, almost hypnotic overall effect of the quintet.
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