Understated Opening to Standing Ovation: Faculty Recital Kicks Off Series

Jarrett Hoffman, Staff Writer

Around 9:30 p.m., Sept. 4, Conservatory faculty members emerged from the backstage of Warner Concert Hall to a near-rockstar reception. A swarm of students had gathered in the hallway around the hall’s exit to shower their professors with whoops of adoration for the strong performance that they had just given, a concert of Mozart and Brahms quintets to open this season’s Faculty Chamber Music Series.

Rarely performed — a forgotten third-stringer getting called up for the big game — the first work on the program was Mozart’s String Quintet No. 2 in C Minor. This piece was no slouch, however, and was certainly up to the task of kicking off the series. It is one of Mozart’s six “viola” quintets, each of which adds a second viola part to the standard string quartet of two violins, single viola, and cello. Michael Strauss, associate professor of Viola and Chamber Music, described the quintet in an email to the Review as “a beautiful and legitimate addition to the viola quintet repertoire.” He went on to say that “[he] was eager to program it for [his] community with the hope that it would spark interest in all six of Mozart’s beautiful viola quintets.”

The opening of the concert was slightly disappointing, as the first movement lacked the initial “bang” Mozart indicated by a collective flex of forte in all of the parts. The performers — David Bowlin, OC ’00, assistant professor of Violin and Marilyn McDonald, professor of Violin and Baroque Violin; Professor of Viola Peter Slowik and Associate Professor of Viola Michael Strauss; and Associate Professor of Viola da Gamba and Cello Catharina Meints — opted for a more restrained, even dull take, but one could easily forgive them after they went on to display beautiful lyrical playing, exciting contrast and excellent timing throughout the remainder of the movement. The opening of the third movement was significantly more vigorous, with the melody bursting out in canon.

In the andante second movement, Slowik and Strauss displayed the piece’s double viola instrumentation, intermingling the instruments’ sonorities to create a far richer timbre than would be possible from a single viola. Strauss lauded the instrumentation. “Two violas bring a warmth to a chamber work that is really unique. In layman’s terms, you can’t have too much of a good thing, and since the viola is such a very good thing, why not two?”

Indeed, the piece is quite charming as a whole, especially its quirky last movement, made up of several short sections that move promptly from one to the next, as modules of a short story or individual pieces of a collage. One might worry that the closing segment, just as succinct as the other sections of the movement, barely has time to build up to the final chord, creating a challenge for performers in crafting a convincing ending. But the seasoned group worked up some powerful momentum even within that short space, driving the piece to a thrilling close and a warm wash of applause.

Following the Mozart and a short pause, a quintet by another towering composer of the classical repertoire closed out the evening: Brahms and his Piano Quintet in F Minor. “I thought opening the year with a concert that featured this incredible work was an exciting proposition,” wrote Strauss, who, along with Bowlin, was joined by Professor of Violin Gregory Fulkerson, OC ’71, on first violin alongside Darrett Adkins, OC ’91 and associate professor of Cello, and Monique Duphil, professor of Piano.

The haunting melody that opens this work was sobering after the lively Mozart. The quintet painted the range of musical characters with a deeply empathetic brush, displaying secrecy, cold assertion and redfaced fury in the first movement alone. This energy was particularly effective in the third movement, which alternated in style between a knife-edge scherzo and a joyous wedding march. Although the two themes seemed to undermine one another, they wove together into an uneasy unity as the movement progressed.

The Brahms performance was not without its problems, however. Intonation was unsettled throughout the performance, while the fast-paced close to the third movement could have been tightened up with more rehearsal time. Another issue was balance. While the opening of the second movement saw the strings lie low and allow the piano to gently chart the course of the music, the latter’s sound was often covered up by the strings’ enthusiasm in the large space of Warner Concert Hall, diminishing the full blend of the ensemble.

The crowd didn’t seem to mind, however, as a long standing ovation followed the recital. Some of the performers stopped to talk or exchange high fives with students in the hallway, while others scooted through the crowd appreciatively, perhaps looking forward to a calmer place after the excitement of the evening.

The next installment of the Faculty Chamber Music Series, originally set for Sept. 21 in Finney Chapel, has been rescheduled for Nov. 2 in Warner Concert Hall. The program will include Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, performed by Duphil and Yuri Shadrin, OC ’06, as well as Michael Rosen, director of Woodwinds, Brass and Percussion and professor of Percussion.