Wednesday, October 11, 2017

IVCI, Ronen Chamber Ensemble join forces again to launch 2017-18 Laureate Series

The upper size limit of chamber-music ensemble is nine, and on that conventional pinnacle the opening Laureate Series concert
Chin Kim has had a full career since competing with distinction here in 1986.
of the 2017-18 season concluded Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center.

Bohuslav Martinu's Nonet for Wind Quintet, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass was the vehicle for maximum display of the Ronen Chamber Ensemble, with 1986 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis laureate Chin Kim representing the IVCI series, which continues independently from here, as will the Ronen season.

A 60-year-old Korean-American whose eminent teachers have included Josef Gingold, founder of the IVCI, Kim was among the six finalists in the second competition, all designated laureates. On this return visit, he was joined in a scintillating performance of the Martinu by Ronen co-founders David Bellman, clarinet, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman cello, plus Mike Chen, viola; Alistair Howlett, flute; Leonid Sirotkin, oboe; Robert Danforth, French horn, Kelly Swensson, bassoon, and L. Bennett Crantford, double bass.

The ensemble worked smoothly through the lively exchanges in the first movement. The players poked out the score's colorful accents supporting characteristic Czech melodies and dance rhythms. Fischer-Bellman's solo in the Andante movement established the pensive mood and set the course for a series of elegant mini-solos, including oboe, horn, and viola. The gentle subsiding of passionate song near the end was adeptly handled.

The finale, flecked by nostalgic touches that color its rhythmically lively momentum, confirmed the high level of coordination and sensitivity to blending instrumental color that the ensemble had shown from the first.

The concert's other emphasis on the durable Ronen Chamber Ensemble's attractions came at the beginning, with Kim again in the violin chair, and Chen and Fischer-Bellman filling out the string component, for Mozart's Oboe Quartet in F major. The oboist sported a strong tone and suave, sustained phrasing. In the fast music, chiefly concentrated in the finale (Rondeau: Allegro), there were a few slips in his passage work, but otherwise Sirotkin's agility was well-matched to his steady, well-centered sound.

It was in an "off" chord near the end of the first movement that I began to wonder if the guest violinist's intonation was top-drawer. There was much greater opportunity to  test this impression in Schubert's Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, D. 934, with Chih-Yi Chen at the piano. This expansive piece is in every respect a duo, to begin with, so the partnership would have been more solid if Kim had used the music, instead of treating the work like a bonbon. The players matched their contributions well, nonetheless.

But despite the violinist's lyricism and the flair and thorough knowledge of the piece he exhibited, the tone seemed thin and intonation slips were frequent, mostly on the low side of the pitch. In the virtuoso final section of the piece, despite his perky elan, Kim did not display the highest level of bow control. After intermission, Eugene Ysaye's transcription of Saint-Saens' Caprice on an Etude in Form of a Waltz, op. 52, no. 6, indicated that Kim's artistry is founded on both musical insight and technical aplomb, yet intonation remained a problem and his sense of style could not quite make up for a scrawny tone.

This program's concise violin-piano masterpiece highlighting Kim was Ravel's "Tzigane." Performance of the long unaccompanied opening caught the gypsy exoticism that spurred Ravel to represent it so memorably, but seemed lacking in intensity. After the consistently expert pianist joined in, there was a rawness in the violin playing that may have been an interpretive decision. Yet I think the music cannot help showing off the French composer's elegance; that quality was mostly highlighted by the duo's adept alternation of accelerating and slowing phrases before the whirlwind final measures.

We are used to a higher standard of playing from IVCI laureates in this series, and I earnestly wish that standard will soon be re-established.