Bold and Bravura Chamber Music at Mainly Mozart

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in a previous concert with the Mainly Mozart Orchestra [photo courtesy of Mainly Mozart]

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in a previous concert with the Mainly Mozart Orchestra [photo courtesy of Mainly Mozart]

Most musicians and concert-goers agree that La Jolla’s Auditorium at TSRI provides the most favorable acoustical setting for chamber music in San Diego County. The room was designed to immerse the entire audience in the lively sound other venues can only offer on stage with the players.

But when Mainly Mozart assembled on the Auditorium’s stage the powerhouse pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and equally assertive violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg along with the rambunctious Miami String Quartet, the result was a virtual tsunami of sound.

Friday’s (March 6) Spotlight Chamber Music Series experience with this musical crew proved simultaneously glorious and overwhelming.

Not that this came as a total surprise. Though it is not frequently performed, Ernest Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 21, comes with a formidable reputation: an explosive, muscular chamber work whose ripe Romantic style aspires to symphonic proportion at every turn. Even if you have heard it but once,  you never forget its massive impact!

McDermott rarely held back, maximizing the Yamaha concert grand’s hefty power to project Chausson’s florid piano decoration. Racing up and down the keyboard, her exuberant runs and argeggios displayed the consummate polish that is her trademark. Although no one is likely to accuse Salerno-Sonnenberg of timidity, I appreciated her wider range of dynamic choices, especially her deftly pointed, incisive thematic exposition in the second movement Sicilienne.

Navigating shrewdly between faithful accompaniment and bold exposition, the Miami String Quartet complemented these soloists eloquently. Violist Scott Lee’s energetic thematic duos with Salerno-Sonnenberg in the first two movements put the viola—all too frequently the overlooked workhorse of a string quartet–on equal footing with the violin soloist, and he upheld his part of the conversation with élan. The other members of the Miami String Quartet included violinists Benny Kim, Cathy Meng Robinson, and cellist Keith Robinson.

The Miami String Quartet opened the concert with Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, and I am pleased to note the modest acclaim Erwin Schulhoff is finally achieving. This marked the third performance I have experienced of this piece over the last few seasons.

Although Schulhoff’s career took off in the 1920s as a sophisticated modernist composer, when the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia in World War II, he was targeted by the Gestapo both as a Communist and a Jew. He died in a German concentration camp in 1942, and after the war his music was largely forgotten until the current century.

Each piece of the Five Pieces is a stylized dance movement, and Miami gave each a dark, almost sardonic interpretation. I have heard these dances played with the light-hearted, urbane nonchalance of Stravinsky in his neo-classical period, but these players brought out the score’s dissonances, pushing his idiom closer to that of Béla Bartók. Cellist Keith Robinson’s searing traversal of the fourth movement Tango’s rugged bass line matched Cathy Meng Robinson’s acidly etched primary themes of this virile and rather seductive dance.

The quartet’s closing Tarantella raged gloriously!

This Spotlight Chamber Music Series performance was given March 6, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at the Auditorium at TSRI, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla, CA, 92037. It will be repeated Sunday, March 8, 2015, at 2:00 p.m. at St. Elizabeth Seton Church, 6628 Santa Isabella Street, Carlsbad, CA, and at 5:30 p.m. the same day at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe.     

The next Spotlight Series offering will be given on March 27, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at the Auditorium at TSRI.

Mainly Mozart Program

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