Thursday, March 17, 2016

Chamber music rapport at the summit: Lincoln Center ensemble visits Indianapolis, thanks to the Ensemble Music Society

At the highest level, chamber music before the public pushes to the top the traditional small-group configurations: piano trio, wind quintet, string quartet.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center group that appeared here.
This keeps a lot of masterpieces before music lovers, but may leave many worthy pieces for other than conventional combinations out of consideration. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is a long-running corrective to such exclusions. It can also explore musical forms that adapt well to smaller ensembles, such as concertos.

Two of those made up the bulk of the Lincoln Center group's concert Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center. In its next-to-last offering of the 2015-16 season, Ensemble Music Society filled the hall for a program of Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn.

The concerted works included Rondo in A major for Violin and Strings, D. 438, which the precocious Franz Schubert wrote for his brother Ferdinand. Sean Lee was the soloist, backed by a string quartet composed of violinist Benjamin Beilman and Kristin Lee, violist Richard O'Neill, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis.

The Rondo tune had an Italian flavor, influenced no doubt by Mozart's Italian-language operas. The soloist managed its long-breathed elegance well, his lean tone well-suited to an outpouring of classically flavored melody, with limited opportunities for showmanship. Lee's colleagues were fully congruent with his controlled lyricism.

Contrast that with the outsize display in Mendelssohn's Double Concerto in D minor for Violin, Piano, and Strings.  Also the product of a precocious teenager, this expansive three-movement work has the composer working his palette and formal mastery adeptly. Beilman was partnered in the solo role by CMS artistic director Wu Han at the piano.

Violin and piano are joined at the hip as a duo, often out on their own, free of ensemble support. Cadenzas for the solo instruments burst in flower out of nowhere. Lots of textural contrast is joyously indulged in throughout the work. Beilman, whose honors include an International Violin Competition of Indianapolis bronze medal (oddly unmentioned in the program bio), showed the polish and elan I remember him exhibiting as a contest participant in 2010.

For all its dazzle, the piece has surprising emotional depth at times, such as a lyrical episode for the violin with anxious piano tremolos in the first movement. In its expressive breadth and flashiness alike, this little-heard composition was astonishingly effective as the concert's entire second half. The enraptured audience called the visitors back for an encore, the Scherzo from Dvorak's Piano Quintet.

The concert's one established masterpiece opened the program: Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, much the lesser-known of the two he wrote for the combination of piano, violin, viola, and cello. Taking the exposition repeat in the first movement emphasized the work's drama, which overall is more restrained than that of its familiar G minor cousin, because the development explodes with strings in unison, succeeded by a piano statement in the minor mode.

Wu Han, a sensitive and enthusiastic force at the keyboard, led her colleagues in mastery of the work's charm, humor, and resourcefulness. The ensemble was fully up to projecting what Eric Blom (referring to the finale of the "Jupiter" Symphony) has called Mozart's "clairvoyant virtuosity." This quality came through in the group's pinpoint rapport and smooth articulation of the work's genius.

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