John Frayne: 'Prairie' groups offer lively show; Juilliard Quartet shines

Kevin Kelly and the Prairie Ensemble gave their first concert of 2013, "A Windy Affair," on Feb. 24 in Holy Cross Church, Champaign.

It was an ideal place for works for winds because its lofty spaces provide impressive resonances. About half the program was also performed by the choral group Prairie Voices, led by Laurie Matheson. Although both performing groups share the name "Prairie," they are not part of the same organization.

Kelly is a canny and inventive programmer, and in this concert he chose to frontload the program. The first piece, George Frideric Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," was not only the most famous piece, but frankly, also the best. This work, written for an ill-fated celebration of a peace treaty in 1748, is the epitome of regally splendid music in the Baroque period. Despite the fact that the fireworks building burned down at its premiere, the work has always been a prime favorite with listeners. The wind players, with drums, did themselves proud with this grandiose opening.

The contrast between Handelian splendors and the piece that followed could not have been more stark. Arvo Prt's composition, "Fratres" ("Brothers"), is a study in minimalist understatement. A simple theme is intoned, and then repeated with variations, building to a climax at the middle then descending in volume to a hushed ending.

The wind players of the ensemble did a fine job in conveying the meditative concentration of this piece. I was struck by its similarity to Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" — but without Ravel's sensuous climax at the end. We are in the midst of a "Fratres" boom. The East Coast Chamber Orchestra recently played the string version at its concert.

It was appropriate for Kelly to choose Igor Stravinsky's "Mass" for a concert at a Catholic church. Stravinsky was Russian Orthodox in religion, but a chance purchase of a secondhand copy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Masses led Stravinsky to do a setting of the ordinary of the Latin Mass.

Stravinsky's "Mass" is a curious work. While the five sections of the Mass led most composers to expansion, with only a phrase or sentence inspiring Mozart to compose an extended aria, Stravinsky gets through the text with dispatch, if not a hurry. But despite an emotionally restrained tone, Stravinsky skillfully switches from solo voices, to full chorus, to instrumental effects, so that the listener's attention is focused on both word and emotive musical expression.

Prairie Voices had been admirably prepared by Matheson, and Kelly led both singers and players in a highly satisfying performance. But my, what a difference between this cool work and Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms!"

There was no intermission, and I missed the opportunity to talk to friends. After the Stravinsky, Prairie Voices performed Four Motets on Gregorian Themes, Op. 10 (1960), by Maurice Durufle, whose consoling "Requiem" (1947) is beloved by many radio listeners. These four short works are beautiful settings of medieval Latin texts, written in a Latin with more expressive and ornamental word choice than the Latin of the Ordinary of the Mass.

Matheson directed her chorus in a performance of lovely clarity and impressive ensemble discipline. The text of the last piece, "Tantum ergo sacramentum," set to different music, is familiar from its use in Catholic churches.

Kelly is gradually expanding my knowledge of little-known American composers. This concert ended with a "Serenade for Wind Instruments" by Arthur Bird, who lived from 1856 to 1923. Born in Massachusetts, he was trained in Germany and spent the latter part of his life in Berlin. His "Serenade" is an attractive piece, worthy of occasional performance, and in style, somewhere between Antonin Dvorak and Max Reger. The Ensemble, led by Kelly, gave this work a lively and enthusiastic reading.

Juilliard String Quartet

The Juilliard String Quartet came Feb. 28 to the Foellinger Great Hall in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts for a serious and unusually ordered program of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Elliott Carter and Mozart.

Since its beginning in 1946, this quartet has been one of the leading chamber music ensembles in the U.S., earning an especially distinguished reputation in promoting challenging contemporary works and the more demanding works of the older string quartet repertory. Violist Samuel Rhodes has been with the group since 1969; Joel Krosnick, cello, joined the Quartet in 1974. Violinist Ronald Copes came on board in 1997, and the junior member of the group is violinist Joseph Lin, who became first violinist in 2011.

The concert began with Contrapunctus 1 to 4 of Bach's monumental demonstration of contrapuntal skills in "The Art of the Fugue." Bach left no indication of what instruments he intended to play this work; string quartets are one among many combinations used in performances.

The Juilliard group played these pieces with affectionate awe. This is music for the head rather than the heart, and these players emphasized the intricacy of structure in these pieces. There is variety of speed and mood here, and these aspects were well captured in the Juilliard performance.

Carter, who died in November at age 103, has long been a revered figure among the American avant-garde. The complexity of his works has tended to turn off some music lovers. Krosnick gave a short speech before the playing of Carter's "String Quartet No. 5" in what seemed to be an effort to clarify the structure of this quartet.

This work consists of six movements and also an introduction and five interludes between these movements. The interludes represent the personal remarks of the string players rehearsing the movements. Krosnick and his fellow players performed the Introduction and one of the movements to demonstrate the differences in style, and then the whole work was performed.

The interludes contained some expressive, sometimes comic struggles between the players. A high-flown phrase from the first violin might be deflated by a single pizzicato "snap" from the cello. The movements are varied in tempo and moods. This work, despite being played without pause, has clear signposts along the way. Carter clearly defined the moods of the sections, with the Italian words "energico" being followed by "sereno."

That said, it would be easy for a listener to get lost in this piece. My personal reaction to this work is that Carter is very good at establishing a special mood or idea at the beginning of a movement, but I am less engaged by the development of the material.

This work resembles literary works described as "metafictions" in that they concern themselves with the process of writing fiction. Here Carter is adding the extra layer of performer's reactions to the central work. In reacting to this Carter quartet, I wonder if the additional level of self-consciousness adds or detracts from the piece.

The Interludes do afford a level of high spirited humor to this work, and I am glad that the Juilliard Quartet gave us the opportunity to hear so polished a performance of it. It appeals surely to a highly selective audience, and the applause after it ended bordered on the polite.

It is unusual to end a concert with a Mozart string quartet, but after the Carter quartet, I suspect the sounds of Mozart's Quartet No. 21 brought sighs of relief to some members of the audience. The Juilliard Quartet played this work with lovely tone, and beautifully modulated style, from serene to sparking.

After hefty applause, the group performed one of Ludwig van Beethoven's most profoundly moving quartet movements, the Adagio movement of his last Quartet, No. 16. It was a superb ending to a great, if challenging, evening of chamber music.

One listener said to me that this movement was probably meant as a memorial to Carter. Another listener guessed that it was offered as an emotional reward for surviving the rigors of the Carter quartet. Opinions are what make the horse races — and also reviews.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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