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Concert review

Chiarina Chamber Players close season in thrilling style from Dvořák to Simon

Mon May 20, 2024 at 12:05 pm

The Chiarina Chamber Players performed Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major Sunday at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill.  Photo Albert Ting

Chiarina Chamber Players closed their season Sunday evening with a concert at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill. Loosely unified by a theme of composers incorporating multiple cultural influences, the program featured works by Manuel Ponce, Carlos Simon, Maurice Ravel, and Antonin Dvořák. Chiarina co-artistic directors Efi Hackmey and Carrie Bean Stute were joined by violinists Njioma Grevious and Abi Fayette, and violist Paul Laraia.

Fayette (replacing the indisposed Karla Donehew Perez) and Laraia opened the program with a sonata by Manuel Ponce, an important composer and force in the musical life of his native Mexico in the first half of the 20th century, His guitar compositions and popular songs remain widely known today, and Ponce’s Sonata a Duo (1938) is a compelling example of his skill in the chamber genre.

Ponce lived in Paris from 1925 to 1933 and absorbed the European styles of the period, which clearly inform the anxious dissonances of the first movement. Fayette delivered an energetic and precise reading of the violin part in both the roiling figures that make up much of the movement and the wistful themes which provide occasional relief.

The second movement is marked “In tempo di Sarabanda” and incorporates fragments that recall Renaissance music. The stately tempo dovetailed with the thematic turn, but the movement seemed static with little to enliven it besides the occasional period flourish in the violin. The final movement found the pair tightly coordinated for the mood and tempi swings that drive the allegro finale, though Laraia failing to take advantage of the viola’s opportunities.

Violinist Grevious offered Between Worlds, a solo violin work by Carlos Simon, the current Kennedy Center composer-in-residence. Inspired by the artist Bill Traylor who was born into slavery and lived until 1949, Between Worlds was created in tandem with a 2018 show at the Smithsonian American Museum of Art.

Simon’s work seeks to evoke the titanic shifts in history Traylor witnessed in his life. Initial Copland-esque open intervals give way to seething, spiritual-infused fragments; the second half arrives in the 20th century with propulsive runs high in the instrument’s register and jazzy interjections. Between Worlds is a highly listenable work, though the compact duration and abrupt coda don’t fully realize the expansive goals it hints at. Still, Grevious made thrilling work of this piece, portraying the distinct shifts of character in each micro-section and dispatching the virtuoso runs and high double-stopped passages with exuberant clarity.

To close out the first half, Grevious united with Efi Hackmey for Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, composed from 1923 to 1927. From the outset of the opening Allegretto, Hackmey lent an assertive voice to the piano part that held its own with the big, expansive tone of Grevious’s violin. In the second movement, Grevious demonstrated a sure feeling for the bluesy elements Ravel incorporates in the violin line against jazz-inflected fragments in the piano (which become almost menacing as the movement proceeds to its climax). The dazzling Perpetuum Mobile finale pit Grevious’ impressive handling of the frenetic violin line against churning piano counterpoint, which benefited from Hackmey’s ability to pull lines out of the texture.

The second half was devoted to Dvořák’s towering Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, presented by the complete assembled forces. The take-no-prisoners approach to the opening Allegro was evident from the outset, Stute’s rich opening cello theme was succeeded by an explosive shift  into the development section. Each return of the turbulent material found the group leaning more heavily into the contrast, rising to a crushing forte. If the intense performance at times threatened to cross from stormy to cacophony, it was undeniably exciting music-making, reflecting the extreme emotions on the page.

The second movement, “Dumka,” is based on a Slavic folk ballad form and features the strings trading long haunting lines against a distant piano accompaniment. Trying to wring every ounce of emotion out of the slow sections, group’s sound was heavy at times, exacerbated by a few spots of sour intonation in the lower strings. The light-hearted alternating sections and extended piano-led coda fared better.

The brief Scherzo highlighted Grevious’ violin in charming folk-flavored melodies and additional piano details brought out by Hackmey, culminating in a joyous final stretch. The Finale showcased meticulous interplay between the players, the fire of the first movement still present but tempered by the more intricate demands here, including an extended fugue. The strings united in a lovely blended sound for the benedictory chorale theme before racing to the finish.

The Chiarina Chamber Players’ 2024-25 seasons opens September 28 with a performance featuring pianist Michelle Cann. chiarina.org

Calendar

May 26

Memorial Day Festival Chorus
United States Air Force Band
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