Two Knoxville audiences were treated to two excellent chamber music programs yesterday.
The first was the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Q Series at the Square Room on Market Square, featuring the KSO’s Principal Quartet: Gordon Tsai, first violin; Edward Pulgar, second violin; Kathryn Gawne, viola; and Andy Bryenton, cello.
The second was world renowned cellist, Colin Carr, playing 3 of the suites from J. S. Bach’s set of Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites, at the Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall at the Natalie Haslam Music Center at the University of Tennessee.
The Q Series, a lunch-time group of concerts sponsored by Café 4, which services a buffet lunch as part of the ticket price, offers a chance to hear great chamber music up close. Wednesday, the 11 tables that seat 10 each were almost completely full.
During the performance, it should be noted, some in the mostly senior citizen audience forgot to use their quiet, indoor voices their mothers had worked hard to teach them.
The Principal Quartet served up music that was pure delight on its own, beginning with Mozart’s “String Quartet #6 in B Flat,” K 159, the fifth in a group of six string quartets written by Mozart while visiting Milan, on the Italian peninsula, in 1773.
The Principal Quartet delivered it in close to a clean, pure classical style without the exaggerated vibrato that developed later in the Romantic period of classical music.
Watching this group of four players, who have been together for more than five years, is just as much a visual pleasure as listening to the music they play. First violinist Tsai plays with animated physical expression that American classical musicians seldom show, but is the hallmark of musicians around the rest of the world.
The same is true for second violinist, Pulgar, who grew up in the same wonderful Venezuelan musical environment that produced Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.
The other two members, Gawne and Bryenton, play equally well, but also play with the physical reserve that has been the hallmark of American conservatory training for decades, a philosophy that musicians should be heard but visually stay out of the way of the music.
Frankly, I think formally dressed statuary on concert stages takes some of the joy out of attending live performances. It’s a turn-off to young audiences.
But that wasn’t an issue with the casually dressed players at this concert. The quartet’s playing of Mozart’s third movement, labeled “Rondo: Allegro grazioso,” with its alternating staccato/legato phrasing was especially delightful.
The middle of the concert was Astor Piazzolla’s 1978 “Four for Tango,” a piece written for the great American contemporary music specialists, the Kronos Quartet.
The KSO Principal Quartet attacked it with vigor and enthusiasm. Its features of long, slow glissandi, contrasted with the kind of rapid, short, high glissandi first heard in Bernard Hermann’s iconic music for the famous shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” are interwoven in Piazzolla reinvention of classical tango. Add to those strange sounds, knocking on the instrument bodies.
The program ended with a sizzling performance of Mendelssohn’s “String Quartet No 2 in E,” Op. 44, written in 1839 when Mendelssohn was only 30.
The second movement, “Scherzo: Allegro di molto,” has a driving rhythm with buzzing trills, while the fourth movement, “Presto agitato,” was busy and fussing like two kids riding in the back seat, with little moments of quiet when mama’s hand would swipe nothing but air, then be back at it again.
Later in the day, at UT, the great British cellist, Carr, gorgeously played the four even numbered suites, BWV 1008, 1010 and 1012, from Bach’s set of six, among the most recorded music in the cello repertoire, although few who have recorded them play them as well as Carr.
Before the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals, when still a boy, discovered an edition of the suites in a used bookstore and reinvented cello playing technique, partly in order to master how to play them, cellists considered the suite little more than technical exercises of little musical merit.
In Carr’s hands, they are musical storytelling of the highest order. In the first piece, “Suite No. 2, in D Minor,” the middle movement, labeled “Courante,” after one of the dance styles of Bach’s time, sizzled with energy, while the “Sarabande” movement that followed was more thoughtful and contemplative.
While the “Suite No. 4 in E Flat Major,” was equally lovely and a pure joy to hear as Carr went through its musical discourse, it was the “Suite No. 6 in D Major” that was the show-stopper.
Originally written for a 5-string cello, far more common in Bach’s day than now when most cellists have never played one, mastering it on 4 strings requires inventive technique. There were plentiful moments that were nothing short of dazzling, both watching the gymnastics of Carr’s finger work and hearing the magic in the music he made.
There will be more concerts of this quality both at UT and the Square Room.
Many of the School of Music’s concerts, which can be followed on the school’s website, are free, as was Carr’s extraordinary evening of music.
At the Q Series concerts on Nov. 8, Dec. 13, Jan 31, 2018 and April 25, 2018, both the Principal Quartet and the Woodwind Quintet will play. Mar. 28, 2018, The Woodwind Quintet will have the concert to themselves.