Monday, January 22, 2007

Kennedy Quartet 'Kinderconzert'

Bringing a preschooler to a string quartet recital is an act, most parents would agree, of complete and utter insanity. Subject those tiny ears to one of Beethoven's "Rasumovsky" Quartets, or the subtleties of Saint-Saens? At best, it's an act of incredible optimism; at worst, an invitation to mayhem.

But at the Kennedy Center's Family Theater on Friday, four National Symphony Orchestra members proved any skeptics wrong, offering a friendly, pain-free and often hilarious introduction to the string quartet for the 4-and-older crowd.

Violinists Holly Hamilton and Jane Bowyer Stewart, violist James Francis Deighan and cellist David Teie -- a.k.a. the Kennedy Quartet -- presented an animal-themed program that was as big on theatrics as it was on playing. Teie rode his cello around the stage during the galloping rhythms of the Beethoven (his bow wagging behind him as a tail), the violins tweeted during Haydn's Op. 33 "Bird" Quartet, and Schubert's bees, Saint-Saens's fish and other musical fauna cheerfully swarmed the stage.

But all this was just prelude to a new piece by Susan Kander called "The Donkey, the Goat and the Little Dog," billed as "the first all-talking, all-acting, in-motion string quartet." Each of the instruments took on a distinct personality, and Kander had them laugh, cry, play and argue together, while the players romped around and spoke their roles to make the story clear. The whole thing was hugely enjoyable, ending (as all dramas properly should) with everyone eating ice cream together. The audience showed its approval with clapping, emphatic squeals and much bouncing in the seats.

-- Stephen Brookes

St. Petersburg String Quartet

You might think that discipline, passion and impetuousness inhabit different universes, but the St. Petersburg String Quartet has morphed the three into a powerful musical persona. The group's program on Saturday at Georgetown's Dumbarton United Methodist Church was well geared to display the many facets of its personality.

The concert opened with "Oriental," the second of Glazunov's Five Novelettes, a happy romp through a romantic's vision of the East that sounded more like a Western hoedown than an exotic fantasy. Its foot-stomping rhythms kept intricate textures in line and subtle sonorities in focus. It began with such a sense of motion that the listener felt as if this were something that had been going on for a while, and this momentum never quit.

The first, and lesser-known, of Borodin's Quartets is a compendium of musical devices, full of fugal snatches, passages in ringing harmonics and romantic lyricism. It is a little too long, too repetitious and too obvious but, played as well as it was on Saturday, it can be great fun. Individual lines had an opportunity to emerge, and violinists Alla Aranovskaya and Alla Krolevich, violist Aleksey Koptev and cellist Leonid Shukayev, who in ensemble were so ideally matched, proved also to have strong and interesting individual personalities.

Clarinetist Teddy Abrams, a 19-year-old Curtis Institute student who has played with the SPSQ for two years, joined the others for a gorgeous, well-shaped reading of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. The first movement seemed deliberate, its occasional pauses opportunities for reflection and rededication. Abrams molded his lines with exquisite control of both dynamics and intensity (the latter especially) and moved in and out of the spotlight smoothly and with splendid artistry.

-- Joan Reinthaler

National Philharmonic Orchestra At Strathmore

"Snippets of Sound" would have been an apt title for the National Philharmonic's concert Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore. Music Director Piotr Gajewski conducted six works (from four centuries) with a total of 18 movements -- a pinch of Pachelbel, a modicum of Mozart, an iota of Elgar, a glimmer of Glass and, at the end, a more substantive soupcon of Shostakovich.

Pachelbel's Canon -- the famous one that everyone plays -- and two of Mozart's delightful early Divertimenti (K. 137 and K. 138) were pleasant throwaways. The chamber-size, strings-only orchestra seemed just to go through the motions, making the Andante of K.138 soporific and rushing the finale while missing its high-spirited good humor.

The players seemed more attuned to the 19th and 20th centuries. Elgar's Serenade for Strings was excellent, the gorgeous Larghetto being especially expressive and the quiet playing outstanding.

Glass's "Company" also went well. It is an odd piece of theater music, designed to fill in some of the many blanks in Samuel Beckett's eponymous work. Minimalist music with a mostly narrow dynamic range, it challenges players to make small changes meaningful and listeners to accept drama and portents that lead nowhere.

For Shostakovich's impish Piano Concerto No. 1, the strings were joined by Brian Ganz on piano and Chris Gekker on trumpet. Ganz really gave his all, single-handedly (or double-handedly) overpowering the orchestra in the first movement and blending lyricism with impassioned cadenzas throughout. The sardonic, silly finale, always a great crowd-pleaser, was a frantically fast triumph for all the players.

-- Mark J. Estren

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