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Apple Hill String Quartet, 3/8/20

I heard a concert by the Apple Hill String Quartet at St. Bart’s on 3/8/20. The opened with a Mozart quartet (#18 in A major), which reminded me of why I don’t really like Mozart. Very pretty but not interesting. The quartet has a lovely, warm sound, but i’ve been spoiled by the Chiara Quartet, they’re the standard to which I will always compare any other quartet. The Apple Hills seemed to want more flexibility in phrasing and tempo, and maybe it was the acoustic, but I didn’t hear enough attention to the voicing, what a former choral conductor friend (Tim Stalter) called the Gladys Knight and the Pips issue: either you’re the most important thing (Miss Knight) or you’re something happening in the background (The Pips). I will say this: they played the variations with elegance and wit.


The next piece was the New York premiere of a piece for clarinet and string quartet by Kinan Azmeh, who also played the clarinet part. The piece was called *In the Element* and had a promising opening, a haunting, reverent clarinet solo, like a call to prayer. The strings came in and the piece instantly became less interesting. I wrote Richard a text from intermission: “The last piece was 30 minutes, but somehow was 45 minutes too long.” Ouch!


The second section of the piece was more animated and had some appealing textures. There was a Messaien-esque cantilena over a busy field, which led to a Piazzola rip-off (that was a surprise). They stopped playing and I hoped that the piece was over, but no, it was just the end of the first movement. The second movement was more successful, though it suffered from what I call the Say You, Say Me Syndrome: it had a quiet, contemplative mood and then CRASH!, something skittering and aggressive, then SLAM ON THE BRAKES!, back to the quiet contemplative thing. This was jarring, and not in a way that was valuable or constructive. The piece ended with the string players quietly singing along with their parts, that was lovely. The clarinetist was playing with such vigor that he turned a very particular shade of pink. At first I was going to call it “beet red,” but on closer inspection it was actually “raspberry mousse.”


The second half was the Chausson *Concert,* which I know as the Chausson sextet.

It's for solo violin and piano plus string quartet. It was the whole point in me going to the concert, my friend Becca Fischer was playing the solo violin part. Here's a marvelous performance I found on YouTube:



I turned pages for a set of performances by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society back in 1996 and wow, that piece knocked me out, it became my favorite piece of chamber music ever. My dear friend Kathy the Mezzo came to one of those performances, and we had this conversation afterwards:


ME: Wasn't the Chausson incredible?

KATHY: They played it beautifully.

ME: But you didn't like the piece...?

KATHY: No, I didn't care for it.

ME: Wow, I'm crazy for it. What don't you like about it?

KATHY: Too many climaxes.


Ha! There are too many climaxes in this piece, which is exactly what I like about it. It's like a K-Tel Records commercial from the 70s: "All of the grand clichés of Romantic music, conveniently collected in one piece!"


The Apple Hill performance had Yi-heng Yang at the piano, and she was sublime, in spite of the fact that the piano she was playing had a tinny sound (it was a silk purse/sow's ear situation). The ripples in the piano (1:47 in the video) had me covered in gooseflesh, and Becca's entrance was thrilling, she played with guts and fervor. One of my favorite moments of the piece is at 3:54 in the video, when the solo violin is paired with the cello. I have a strong mental image of Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio and Parry Karp looking at each other in the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performance, but I don't know how I could have seen that when I was sitting next to the pianist turning pages. Becca's super high D at the end of the first movement was ravishing.


Becca and Yang had just the right gothic profundity for the second movement. The bizarre shifts of harmony at the end of the third movement were almost sickening in their beauty (30:30 in the video). And the ending was suitably frothy. What a thrill to hear such a thrilling performance of this piece that I love above all others.

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