After some concerts at the Allerton Barn Festival last year at which the barn was almost unbearably hot, this year the Festival was moved from Labor Day to this past week. But one cannot schedule weather. When I looked at the thermometer on Thursday afternoon, it read 90 degrees, and I anticipated trouble.
Yes, it was warm that evening in the Allerton Barn, and as a witty friend put it: The performances were not only inspiring, but also perspiring.
After a recent superb performance by the Jupiter String Quartet, I expected a lovely reading of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's String Quartet, K. 575, which opened Thursday's concert. The sound of the quartet, in the Allerton Barn, was quite different than in the Foellinger Great Hall. At first it seemed somewhat constricted and lacking in resonance, but one quickly got used to it.
The Jupiters played the Mozart work beautifully. We are told that Mozart wrote this quartet, among others, for the King of Prussia, a cellist, and, to be sure, in the slow movement the baritonal timbres of Daniel McDonough's cello at times took the lead. In the superb finale, the interweaving of the four strings reminded me of a quartet of voices in one of Mozart's operatic masterpieces, such as "Cosi Fan Tutte."
The guest of honor at this concert was Gunther Schuller, who has been one of the most famous figures in American music for more than a half century, as composer, performer, champion of the fusion of jazz and classical music, and not least of all, successful horn soloist.
The evening before, I had attended a two-hour conversation between Schuller and University of Illinois horn Professor Bernhardt Scully, who was the soloist in the Schuller Quintet for Horn and Strings performed Thursday night. At the preceding event, Schuller talked about his life and career, but little or nothing about the horn quintet.
At the Thursday concert, after talking about his becoming a horn player, Schuller at last got onto the piece at hand. One tactic in telling people about a contemporary piece is to admit that they might be challenged by the experience. From my notes, my recollection is that Schuller said his quintet, although beautiful sounding at times, might seem modern, complex, chaotic and horrendous. Such were my notes, and they are not a legal transcript. Schuller went on to describe what he thought to be some of the beauties of the piece.
Well, the quintet turned out to be rather brief, consisting of three movements, each a little more than five minutes in length. So the piece did not overstay its welcome. The most intense attention naturally went to the solo horn part, which required virtuoso skills of the highest order. These challenges Scully met with superbly modulated playing.
Schuller emphasized sonority and timbre in his comments, and yes, the work calls for lovely changes in coloring both from the solo horn as well as the strings. The piece has many dramatic shifts from lyrical moments to dramatic outbursts, and the Jupiter players particularly excelled in the torrent of 32nd notes.
I like best the middle slow movement, a somewhat diabolical nocturne with evocative solos from Scully and a notable passage for solo viola, eloquently played by Liz Freivogel. Here, the line of meditation was broken by outbursts of dissonance.
Despite Schuller's suggestion to close one's eyes and concentrate on the music's complexity, I remain one who "likes to see how the sausages are made." The interplay of Scully and the strings was a visual delight, perspiration and all! To no one's surprise, violinist Nelson Lee and cellist Daniel McDonough appeared in different shirts after intermission.
What was lacking? This piece had rhythmic variety and vitality, dramatic contrasts, and some lovely sounding group of notes, but it lacked melody, the absence of which it shared with much of the music of the past half century. You can't have everything! Amid the strong applause at the work's conclusion, Schuller stood and shook the hands of all the players.
After intermission, when the Jupiters were joined by pianist Wuna Meng in the great Piano Quintet by Cesar Franck, I heaved a sigh of relief: firm tonal ground at last. The opening movement of the Franck work has for me one of the greatest moments in chamber music.
After a turbid opening, the piano finally intones a light, upward lifting melody which sounds to me like a cry of longing, and this melody is a central force in the drama of this section. Later, as is typical with Franck's love of cyclical form, the melody reappears in the finale. The slow movement of this work seemed also alluringly beautiful.
Meng was the first winner of the Chamber Music Student Competition, started by the Jupiters. Meng played with a superb combination of lyrical delicacy and dramatic strength, and the unified playing was an outstanding success.
Next week's column will have more reviews from the Allerton Barn Festival.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.