John Frayne: Impressive shows for quartet, orchestra

John Frayne: Impressive shows for quartet, orchestra

A few weeks ago, the Foellinger Great Hall saw three string quartet concerts in a short period of time. On Feb. 23, I heard the third concert, a program by the Dover String Quartet, which is the winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award. The quartet's members are violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist and Camden Shaw.

The program opened with Wolfgang Mozart's String Quartet No. 23 in F Major, K. 590, the last of the so-called Prussian Quartets, and the very last quartet Mozart wrote. The Dover Quartet's performance of this work was the best Mozart quartet playing I have heard in a long time. The Dover group played with silken elegance. The ensemble discipline was first rate, and achieved without any sign of stress or strain.

The novelty on the program was Caroline Shaw's "Plan and Elevation: The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks" (2015). According to the composer, this work was an expression of her interest in architecture, and it is the only quartet work I know of that sets out to depict ornamental gardens. Of the four titled movements, "The Cutting Garden" came across to me most clearly, the "cut" being musical quotations, one of them from a Mozart Quartet. The final section, "The Beach Tree" section, beginning with small musical fragments, did give an impression of slow majestic growth. Not emotionally intense, Shaw's work was admirable in its well-molded craftsmanship, and the Dover group performed it with sympathetic polish.

After a musical portrait of a garden came a tonal portrait of a life. The work was Bedrich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1, "From My Life." Here the Dover group showed its wilder side in expressing the turmoil of Smetana's early years. Violist Pajaro-van de Stadt's playing shone at the opening of the second movement, and cellist Shaw was outstanding in the opening of movement three. The dramatic finale, with its depiction of the onset of Smetana's deafness, was played with passionate concentration.

On March 4, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine came to the FGH and its concert was a big hit with the audience. Some previous orchestras from Eastern Europe did not stress their own native music styles. Not so with the Ukrainians. Their first piece was Ukrainian as were two encores. This is a big orchestra, and everyone was onstage for Yevhen Stankovych's "Suite from the Ballet 'The Night Before Christmas,'" based on a story by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The introduction used the Ukrainian song "Shchedryk," but the opening section seemed to me to evoke "The Carol of the Bells." In three movements, the Suite has many flashy orchestral effects, and much broad, sustained melody. The concluding "Kozachok," a wild Cossack dance, suggested to me not Christmas Eve, but New Year's Eve, with much freely flowing vodka. Aside from this ballet, the Gogol story has been given three different operatic treatments, and has been filmed four times. Clearly a Ukrainian, and Russian, Christmas favorite!

The next piece on the program, Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54, showed off the virtuoso talents of pianist Alexei Grynyuk, who began his playing with clear, concise phrasing, but as he got going, he showed a fiery temperament in dramatic releases and brilliantly executed runs and scales. Grynyuk and the orchestra under Volodymyr Sirenko brought out well the springlike melodic outpouring in this concerto dedicated to Schumann's wife, the famous pianist Clara Wieck.

At the work's dramatic end, many in the audience stood, so Grynyuk, as encore, played the famous Frederick Chopin "Heroic" Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53 in a barn-burning rendition that evoked a storm of cheers at the end.

His next encore, Chopin's Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 3 in B Major, showed Grynyuk's skills in spinning out hypnotic Chopin melodies. Amid repeated stormy applause, Grynyuk was allowed to leave the stage.

After intermission, conductor Sirenko and the orchestra offered a dramatic and well-rounded performance of Antonin Dvorak's symphonic masterpiece, the Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." Sirenko's pacing of the famous "Largo" movement ("Going Home") was quicker than I am used to, but the English horn solo was excellent.

After the mighty finale, Sirenko called for several bows from players of the English horn, clarinet, oboe, flute, trombones and horns.

I heard the second half of the program from the upper balcony where, by good chance, pianist Grynyuk was sitting, and he was very gracious in identifying the two Ukrainian encores for me.

The first was the Overture to the opera "Taras Bulba" by Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912). This opera was first performed in 1924, after Lysenko's death. The second encore was "Melody" by Myroslav Skoruk (1938-), a 1982 work so popular in Ukraine that many people believe it to be a folk song.

At the music's end, there were cheers for the Ukrainian guests.

May they come soon again!

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

Topics (1):Music

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