March 16, 2018
Israeli Chamber Project reviewed by ConcertoNet.com

But What Would Felix Say?

New York
Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue
03/15/2018 - Harry Rolnick

Igor Stravinsky: Scenes from Petrushka; (Arranged by Yuval Shapiro); Gilad Cohen: Firefly Elegy (World Premiere); Eliott Carter: Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux (“Smooth breathing, rough breathing”); Maurice Ravel: Introduction and Allegro; Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet, Opus 44

Israeli Chamber Project: Daniel Bard, Carmit Zori (Violins), Dimitri Murrath (Viola), Michal Korman (Cello), Siva Magen (Harp), Assaff Weisman (Piano), Guy Eshed (Flute, Piccolo), Tibi Czigar (Clarinet, Bass clarinet)

The seven virtuosi of the Israeli Chamber Project started yesterday evening with the impossible, and continued with the inconceivable.

Yuval Shapiro’s four-movement arrangement of Stravinsky’s Petrushka should be impossible, of course. Piano arrangements, yes, small orchestra, of course. Arranging this for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, harp and piano would seem at least improbable. Mr. Shapiro, though, didn’t attempt an ersatz-orchestration. And with players like the Israeli Chamber Project, every note simulating an orchestra had an unerring rightness.

Yes, he had a piano to fill in some of the parts (as Stravinsky used a piano). But with Sivan Magen’s harp playing, the work had a color and texture far transcending its seven players. I am not a fan of harps per se, but Mr. Magen gave more than glissandos and plucks. Working on the lowest strings, he produced brassy notes, he blended with the strings to augment the orchestral palette, to produce real breadth.

This says little about flute and clarinet, which used the numerous solos in the original, and–thanks to a so sensitive understanding by Mr Shapiro–doubled up to give us trumpet and trombone together.

It was a marvelous achievement. But the whole evening was dominated by the pinpoint accuracy of the seven young players. One can take for granted that the musicians could meld their voices, producing, say, the chordal glories of Schumann’s Quintet. That, though, was almost secondary to their individual edginess.

This was put to dual effect in the second work, by Elliott Carter. After an evening of Carter chamber music several years ago, I learned never to read the program notes beforehand. They are usually illuminating, technically astute and graphic. But they detract from the sheer delight of Mr. Carter’s invention itself.

That was certainly true for Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux composed for the 60th birthday of Pierre Boulez. As one learned, the clarinet and flute somehow spelled the name of Boulez, as well as a Greek epigraph (Carter was a student of Classics as well as music) etc. etc. But the purely musical essence of this dance-like duet was pure pleasure. It took a pair of technicians to celebrate the instruments, and Guy Eshed and Tibi Czigar whispered and talked and argued and followed each other and played in different tempos and their feet got carried away with limpid diaphanous joy.

One imagines that Felix Mendelssohn, floating in a spaceless timeless Hawking universe might have heard the Carter and declaimed, “Why the hell couldn’t I have written this stuff?”

Israeli composer Gilad Cohen was present to give a brief explanation of his Firefly Elegy, a work dependent less on music than entomology. The work wasn’t exactly dodecaphonic, but Mr. Cohen did demonstrate the 12-note theme (resembling Brahms 1st Symphony’s opening, upside-down), which transmuted into the “four life stages of a firefly.”

First the motionless egg, then aggressive larva, then sustained chords of a pupa, and finally the harp plucks became the firefly lights as it looks for a mate. All very clever, a good intermingling of harp, clarinet and string trio.

Yet it was the end, a longish coda, which was most touching. Mr. Cohen writes, “He (the firefly) must sometimes look back and wonder: was it all worth it?” Thus the almost lugubrious final fatalistic lament with a stunning reprise of the first theme.

Unfortunately, only we humans are saddled with past and present tense. The firefly, like 99.99999 percent of all creatures, lives in Now. One understands the anthropomorphic point, but the firefly lives and dies with the same sense that nothing begins, nothing can come to an end. (Apologies: the death of Hawking this week influences all recent happenings, even insectivorous.)

Ravel’s work, officially titled Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Accompanied by a Quartet of Strings, Flute, and Clarinet was officially omitted from the composer’s codex, though he did record it, rewrote it for two pianos and sanctioned the piece for large orchestra. It is definitely a pièce d'occasion, commissioned by a harp company. Ravel, though, never dashed it off, since he was incapable of composing pedestrian music. In fact, with that multi-tinted harp of Sivan Magen, it became more than a divertimento, it became almost a precursor of Ravel’s Daphnis ballet.

That first half of the program was chosen with stunning invention. All 20th or 21st Century music, all different in language and style, and every work far exceeding the mere virtuosity of these players.

The last half was more conventional in a way. Three days ago, I heard another Piano Quintet, this the great Dvořák work, played by the Cassatt Quartet. The five players of the Israeli Chamber Project had another masterpiece of the form, this by Robert Schumann. It gave the one chance to hear these players together, with familiar but always enthralling artistry.

Perhaps because of the constant folkloric feeling of the Dvořák, I personally prefer it. But nobody can surpass the absolutely gorgeous trio of the second-movement March. This was the only time in the evening when I felt disappointed. Nothing was wrong with the ensemble fusing of the string quartet. And the nightmarish piano work was easily conquered by Assaff Weismann.

But by underplaying, literally going through the motions of that movement, they left this listener a bit thwarted. A bit more rubato, a scintilla of schmaltz would hardly be disconcerting (literally).

Never mind. This was their choice, well earned not only by faultless expertise but by their own infectious delight.

 

Harry Rolnick

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