The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Thursday, September 21.
Wu Han, one of the Chamber Music Society’s artistic directors, described the program’s opening night concert as a “tasting menu,” a tantalizing preview of some of what the 2006-07 season has to offer. The metaphor is apt. Few of the selections were particularly filling in themselves, but the variety of musical offerings—from the Baroque to the twentieth century—was positively scrumptious.
The best thing about tasting menus, though, is the chance to try new flavors, which can be even more enjoyable than old favorites. For example, I was looking forward to the pair of songs by Brahms, my favorite Romantic composer, but the viola couldn’t balance the contralto and piano, and consequently the pieces felt anemic and inconsequential. I was slightly disappointed but not really surprised—the viola doesn’t have the power of the violin or the cello. The surprise came after intermission: Contemporary composer Bright Sheng’s The Stream Flows for unaccompanied solo viola made beautiful use of the modest instrument. Its mellow, edge-less tones perfectly complemented the meditative, unmetered folk-derived melody.
Another pleasant surprise was Arthur Bliss’ quirky Madam Noy for soprano and chamber ensemble. Vocalist Amy Burton’s lovely voice danced playfully over F.W.H. Meyerstein’s eccentric poetry. Leon Kirchner’s Flutings for Paula showcased not only Paula Robison, a charmingly expressive flutist, but also the stirring work of percussionist Ayano Kataoka. In a Vivaldi concerto, the standout was the bassoonist, Peter Kolkay, with his warm timbre, gracefully precise articulation, and effortless transitions from the foreground to the background to the foreground again.
For me, though, the highlight of the evening was the concluding work, Dvorák’s string quintet in E-flat major. With its short, folk-like motives, the four-movement piece is rousing and invigorating. The motives provide Dvorák with abundant material for development, and they keep the work grounded, too: It never feels stuffy or academic. The simple tunes give the piece an open, candid nature, which the violinists, violists, and cellist interpreted with lively abandon, like a harvest song—an delicious dish with which to end the evening’s musical feast.