Thursday, May 6, 2021

Two guest ensembles meet in the middle of EMS' May Music Festival

 The venerable local impresario for visiting chamber-music groups has boosted a return to classical concerts for in-the-hall audiences  by welcoming the Horszowski Trio and the Ying Quartet this week. 

Ying Quartet returns for the first time since Robin Scott joined.

Ensemble Music Society set a three-day festival on the fulcrum of a joint appearance by both ensembles Wednesday evening at the Glick Indiana History Center. The groups shared the stage at the intermissionless concert for Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's expansive, passionate Septet, following the Horszowski's luminous account of Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat, op. 97 ("Archduke").

The Horszowski Trio is festival guest in Zwilich and Feldman works.
The landmark Beethoven work, which occupies the summit of music for the combination of piano, violin, and cello, gave the guests a chance to show their command of mainstream repertoire. The night before, the Horszowski had met the unorthodox challenges of Morton Feldman's 1980 Trio. In its second EMS appearance, a different kind of virtuosity was on display: flow, momentum, expressive unanimity, nimbleness, formal command.

The "Archduke" launches with some assertive piano in isolation, underlining the dominance of the keyboard instrument throughout a genre pioneered by Joseph Haydn. Rieko Aizawa proved herself to be an artist with a wide, appropriate range of expression. Initially, however, the piano's resonance was too bright and forceful, such that the string players risked being covered. Lowering the lid slightly for the Zwilich was a wise move, and ensemble balance was further restored by the piano's position behind six string players instead of just two.

The trio's partnership was solid, nonetheless, and the wit and variety of the work's three voices was unstinting. Aizawa's lightness of touch animated the second-movement Scherzo, leading the way but with evident adjustment to the hall's piano favoritism. Expressively, violinist Jesse Mills displayed a dry, precisely judged manner. Cellist Ole Akahoshi put forth a warmer but still patrician sound, somewhat reminiscent of Bernard Greenhouse, cellist in the Beaux Arts, the most eminent American piano trio in its heyday decades ago. The Horszowski made the most of the sprawling lyricism of the third movement, Andante cantabile, and wrapped things up triumphantly in the finale, capped by a speedy, well-integrated coda.

The festival's Venn-diagram programming overlapped the skills of both guest ensembles with the Zwilich Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet. The work juxtaposes the constituent forces immediately, the string quartet getting the long notes; the trio, short ones in a restless pattern. Thematic material and its harmonic treatment brought to mind Russian or Bartokian forebears. The second movement, slyly headed "Quasi una Passacaglia," announces its intention to digress from the old passacaglia form now and then, and does so wholeheartedly. The forces are combined and recombined in all sorts of ways. Balances intact, the seven players appeared to have mastered the relevance of every digression as well as the power of the generating theme, with its broad reach majestically realized.

Zwilich reasserts her Americanness in the blues-inspired third movement, "Games." The harmonies have a jazzy flavor, and syncopated textures tuck in blue notes. There are call-and-response patterns in a nod to other aspects of Black-derived music. The playfulness of these borrowings fulfills the movement's title.

The extensive tone-painting and vigor up to this point tended to make the "Au revoir" finale, admittedly on first hearing, seem too long. By turns stormy and sentimental, this was definitely an emotionally complicated goodbye. (It was complicated in another sense by the pianist's successful struggle with page turns.) The Septet nonetheless succeeds in its effusive celebration of bringing two venerable chamber-music formats together for one grand purpose. It deserved its fulcrum position in this most welcome festival.

The Ying Quartet, with Indianapolis' own Robin Scott in the first-violin chair of what originally was a ballyhooed ensemble of siblings, returns tonight to wrap up the series with an all-Beethoven program.

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