The Viola Sonata a festival highlight


Along with the melting snow, waves of Russian music continue to pour through Baltimore as part of the Vivat! St. Petersburg festival. Gluttonous types could take in three concerts on Sunday, though the level of gratification varied.

For me, the last of the three - Chamber Music by Candlelight at Second Presbyterian Church, featuring Baltimore Symphony Orchestra players - proved the most filling. One item on the program was enough to make a meal, and the performance it received qualifies as a major festival highlight so far.

The Viola Sonata, Op. 147, is the last completed work by Shostakovich. It's so personal and intimate that listening to it sometimes seems like eavesdropping. All of the composer's characteristic traits, from irony to poignancy, imbue the piece, though filtered through a kind of twilight. No, moonlight - the finale takes its melodic and rhythmic inspiration from the opening movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

There is an ache in this subtle echo from the past, as if Shostakovich were reaching back for answers to all the questions of his life, or at least the quizzical closing measures of the sonata's earlier movements. No resolution comes, but there's a semblance of peace as the viola holds onto its last note like a long-breathed sigh. Music does not get more profound.

Violist Peter Minkler produced a darkly beautiful sound as he limned the score with clarity and communicative warmth. His inspired, involving playing was fully matched by pianist Lura Johnson.

The concert also included a snappy account of the Suite from Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat by Ivan Stefanovic (violin), Edward Palanker (clarinet) and Mary Woehr (piano).

Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D major is nearly undone by an oddball finale, full of stops and starts and things that go bump in the night. But the rest of the work, whose endearing melodies found their way into the musical Kismet, is irresistible. So, for the most part, was the performance. Violinists Mari Matsumoto and Tamara Seymour offered lovely phrasing, especially when they passed the Notturno movement's theme back and forth. Woehr, now on viola, and cellist Yuri Sher (coarse-toned in that Notturno) completed the ensemble.

Earlier in the day, there was a chance to hear another lyrical string quartet in D major, Tchaikovsky's Op. 11, during the Concert Artists of Baltimore program at the Engineer's Club. It was stylishly, if not always smoothly, delivered by violinists Peter Sirotin and Tracey Burke, violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Fiona Thompson. Irina Lande, limited by an undersized piano, was mostly effective in Scriabin's Sonata No. 2.

I wasn't able to catch the whole proGram, but I did hear an arrangement of some charming dances from Glinka's Russlan and Ludmila played with style (and some unevenness) by oboist Vladimir Lande, partnered by Irina Lande.

Between those events came what I had expected to be a memorable performance of a sublime work, Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil for unaccompanied chorus, at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society was certainly well-prepared and, though occasionally shy of pitch and seamless blend (as well as true subterranean bass voices), sang with considerable richness.

But music director Tom Hall decided to chat his way through the thing. He introduced nearly every one of the 15 movements with remarks that ranged from the reasonably informative to the superficial to the inappropriate, thoroughly destroying the cumulative power of the score. It didn't exactly help that he forgot a few times to turn off his mike when he resumed conducting, so we heard some unwelcome grunts and cues as well.

What was Hall thinking? A few remarks and illustrations before the performance might have been fine, given that the piece is hardly overexposed, but this gab-fest turned transcendent music into a thoroughly dispiriting experience. What a squandered opportunity.

Rescheduled concerts

Thanks to the snow burst, two Vivat!-related concerts originally scheduled for last week had to be rescheduled.

The Handel Choir of Baltimore's program of a cappella works by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff, led by T. Herbert Dimmock, will be given at 8 p.m. Friday at Old St. Paul's Church, North Charles and Saratoga streets. Current ticket-holders can use their original tickets; remaining tickets are $12-$20. Call 410-366-6544.

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Anne Harrigan, will offer its look at great composers celebrating other great composers - Tchaikovsky's Mozartiana, Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite and Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin - at 8 p.m. March 5 at Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road in Towson. Again, current ticket-holders are set. Remaining tickets are $8-$26. Call 410-426-0157.

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