Seasons greetings! And as we reach the end of the year, I feel it is a good idea to acknowledge how amazing 2015 was for Friends of Chamber Music!
On January 13, we enjoyed a passionate interpretation of Shostakovich’s ninth string quartet by the Pacifica Quartet, the first concert for us by this group. While we had hoped to welcome Menahem Pressler, at 91 a bit more frail than before, to join the Pacifica, sadly he could not make it. But the concert was an audience pleaser, even so.
Spring 2015, we all had a chance to enjoy the full toned cello of David Finckel as a member of three different groups. First was a string quintet with two violas from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS). This group included Paul Neubauer, viola, and the first of his two visits (with Finckel) to us last spring. Their program included string quintets by a pair of composers who had been close friends, Johannes Brahms (Opus 111) and Antonín Dvořák (Opus 97). The two very Romantic quintets were balanced in part by Zoltan Kodaly’s more modern sounding string trio.
In mid-February, our first Sunday matinee concert of 2015 featured the Han Finckel Setzer Trio. This group of three included both artistic directors of CMS, who are also married (Finckel and pianist, Wu Han), as well as what was half of the Emerson String Quartet for 34 years (Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer). This mature and well balanced trio gave a lucid and nuanced performance of two Classical early Beethoven trios (Opus 1, Nos. 1 and 3), and Brahms’ fabulous Romantic first trio (Opus 8). After this concert we invited our audience to stick around in the lobby with snacks and drinks for a meet and greet with the musicians. This was a popular event, and we took some photos of audience members and the musicians.
The Pražák Quartet returned for us in March, with their polish and energy applied to music by Haydn, Janáček, and Dvořák, and receiving a standing ovation from the audience. As local critic, Geoffrey Newman, put it:
“This concert was a uniquely powerful Czech experience. I loved it and apparently so did everybody else. We got a glimmer of the character, spirit and feeling of ‘old world’ chamber music: music making that comes forth like a fine wine stored in an old casket!”
Late March brought Octagon, an all-star Canadian octet, to our stage. Led by Martin Beaver, who has taught at UBC as well as having been first violin for the Tokyo Quartet, this group also included Mark Fewer, former concertmaster of the VSO and member of the St. Lawrence Quartet, as well as violist/visual artist Rivka Golani, and clarinetist James Campbell. They offered us Beethoven’s Septet, and Franz Schubert’s admiring response, his Octet. It is arguable that the Schubert eclipses the greatness of his idol, Beethoven’s earlier work. Both these pieces have been popular, though less often performed in recent times because of the particular size and instrumentation needed for the group. And this assembled company of Canadian musicians gave a masterful performance of both, with the warmth and lyricism that both needed.
Our final scheduled spring concert, in April, was a super-group from CMS in New York featuring Daniel Hope, violin (renowned soloist, formerly part of the Beaux Arts Trio), Paul Neubauer, viola, David Finckel, cello and Wu Han, piano (for her second concert this spring, too). This evening of Romantic piano quartets featured music by Robert Schumann, his young discovery, Johannes Brahms, and an early student work by Gustav Mahler. Yet another rich banquet of music. The program these musicians brought us had already been recorded live in New York at the start of their tour by DG. Even though the CD had not been officially released, they brought us copies to sell in the lobby, and the musicians graciously signed them for people after the concert.
Ordinarily, there would have been no more concerts until the fall. But this year we chose to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of one of the greatest string quartets ever, the Borodin Quartet. And what better way to do so than with a cluster of concerts during which this fine ensemble would play music with which they are closely associated. The current members had been mentored by Valentin Berlinsky, founding cellist, who had prepared all of the quartets for concerts with the composer’s help.
So we had five concerts in nine days during which the quartet played all 15 string quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich. This event was even more fitting because it was arranged in good part by FCM board member Eric Wilson, who had arranged for a similar cycle to be performed by the Borodin Quartet in 1969, when only 12 quartets were yet written by Shostakovich. That had been the first time such a cycle of concerts featuring the Shostakovich quartets had been done in North America. And their complete cycle in Vancouver was their only one world-wide in the Borodin Quartet’s 70th anniversary year! And every day they were in town, the quartet members were practicing, either together or individually. But we did persuade three of them to spend an afternoon on Grouse Mountain, with a few photos to prove it.
And the concerts themselves of this beautiful, powerful, ironic, tragic, funny, resigned music were life-affirming and extraordinary, and our audience was taken on a journey by the combined genius of composer and interpreting musicians. David Gordon Duke, in the Vancouver Sun, commented:
“Concert three of the Borodin Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle saw stellar performances, but the intense chronological listen to these chamber masterworks means that questions and outright puzzles start to emerge.
… What has also become popular, I’m sad to say, is a certain flailing, “crash and burn” style from young, inexperienced, or just exhibitionistic ensembles. So hearing the Borodin perform this extraordinary music with all the emotion but no cheap tricks put things back into perspective.”
This was a magical, twice in a lifetime experience for a few people, who had also been in the audience for the 1969 Shostakovich cycle!
After the summer off, we have been thrilled to start the 68th season, during 2015-2016, with two very distinct string quartet concerts by two strong young groups: the Pavel Haas Quartet, the Czech group who were again winners of the Chamber Record of the Year from the Gramophone Awards in 2015; and the Dover Quartet, the Americans who captured all the prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition.
We even grabbed enough time during the Dover Quartet’s rehearsals to interview the musicians for a video:
And we welcomed a new group, the Shaham Erez Wallfisch Trio, a group of mature artists who played Beethoven’s “Ghost” trio a few days after Halloween, as well as music by Arensky, Rachmaninoff, and Brahms’ 2nd trio.
A great ending to a great year!
Thanks to those of you who joined us for one or more of these beautiful and touching musical experiences! And I hope we can welcome you again, with another fabulous year of concerts to come in 2016!