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Weekend musical pleasures: Concert Artists of Baltimore, Emerson Quartet

The weekend's musical pleasures included an all-Schumann program from the Concert Artists of Baltimore on Saturday and an all-powerful performance by the Emerson String Quartet on Sunday.

The quartet's appearance launched the 45th season of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, Baltimore's primary presenter of leading classical soloists and chamber ensembles. A large crowd was on hand for the occasion. Except for the student in front of me in the balcony who checked his cell phone for some sort of update every few minutes, and other students across the aisle who were much more intent on taking pictures during the concert, the audience seemed to hang on every note of the music. No wonder.

For more than 30 years, the Emerson players have demonstrated superb technical control, persuasive style and uncanny inter-communication skills. So it was on Sunday, as violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawence Dutton and cellist David Finckel focused on works rich in challenging ideas and emotional content.

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From the famous opening of Mozart's K. 465, with those weird dissonances throwing the listener off balance, to the rushing end of Schubert's positively schizophrenic D. 887, with its constant shifting between major and minor, the concert yielded intense rewards. The performance of Shostakovich's devastating Quartet No. 8 at the center of the program proved

the most impressive of all, for the way the Emerson ensemble group made plain the whole, awful subtext of the score (the composer dedicated it "in memory of the victims of fascism and war").

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Schumann has been receiving a good deal of attention as a 2010 bicentennial honoree. The Concert Artists of Baltimore, opening its 24th season, put both its orchestral and choral components into this commemoration Saturday at the Gordon Center.

The program offered a neat balance of familiar and rare repertoire. Representing the familiar was the Piano Concerto, which featured the exuberant Ann Schein. The veteran pianist and former Peabody faculty member demonstrated more than just the chops for the concerto; she had a way of enlivening well-worn phrases, of maintaining interest as well as momentum. I would have welcomed some softer, gentler articulation here and there, but Schein's playing was nonetheless filled with character throughout. The pianist was attentively partnered by conductor Edward Polochick, who had the orchestra responding in generally bright, cohesive fashion.

For the rare part of the evening, Polochick dug up Schumann's Mass, Op. 147, one of the composer's last works. It is not quite a lost masterpiece, cruelly forgotten by time. It sounds too much like a composer dutifully writing sacred music, rather than being divinely inspired (so to speak).

Still, it's respectable in terms of construction and expressive intent, and Polochick certainly made a strong case for the score, ensuring that dramatic peaks were reached effectively and that the most reflective moments hit home. The chorus was in vibrant form and, for the most part, strongly supported by the orchestra. Soprano soloist Sara Berger sang very sweetly in the Offertorium, the most distinctive portion of this modest Mass.

PHOTO (by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) COURTESY OF EMERSONQUARTET.COM

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