Music Review: The Ma'alot Quintet at the National Gallery

The Ma'alot Quintet kicked off "Mendelssohn on the Mall," but its take on Gyorgy Ligeti was the real showstopper.
The Ma'alot Quintet kicked off "Mendelssohn on the Mall," but its take on Gyorgy Ligeti was the real showstopper. (Shupp Artists)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mendelssohn starts his 200th birthday year particularly ripe for reappraisal.

Yesterday, the British paper the Independent ran an article outlining the very real possibility that a document deposited in the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation archive in the 19th century contains proof of an illicit love affair between Mendelssohn and the soprano Jenny Lind. Lind's husband placed the document -- an affidavit describing a letter in which Mendelssohn threatened suicide if Lind didn't run away with him -- in the archive in 1896 and specified that it remain sealed for 100 years.

The document was allegedly opened in 1996, but its contents, the newspaper reported, have yet to be made public.

This is juicy stuff. On Sunday evening, the series "Mendelssohn on the Mall," which runs through Feb. 27, opened at the National Gallery with a concert that was a lot more in keeping with the staid, conformist Mendelssohn of long repute.

Not that the Ma'alot Quintet offered entirely what was expected -- or, for that matter, focused entirely on Mendelssohn at all. The ensemble's name is Hebrew; its members are German; and its program was a pleasant patchwork that -- although it opened with an arrangement of excerpts from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- found its highlight in "Six Bagatelles" by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who died in 2006.

For those who know Ligeti from "Atmosphères," "Le Grand Macabre" or the soundtrack to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," the Bagatelles are a surprise: antic, delightful, effervescent, compact. The first of these short pieces sounds like a love-child of Rossini and Prokofiev, rapidly and mischievously galloping through slightly sour, brash harmonies; each subsequent piece similarly finds a clear, telling stance, from the happy bubbling of an Allegro grazioso to the tolling bell of an Adagio that is gradually pulled apart into long, sustained chords.

These Bagatelles, and Barber's "Summer Music" -- which exudes some of the flavor of mid-20th-century Americana, but with a distinctly Barberian humidity and lushness rather than the cleaner, sparer feeling of, say, Copland -- were the only pieces on the program actually written for quintet. The other works -- a suite of Piazzolla movements and two Scott Joplin rags, as well as the Mendelssohn -- were capably arranged by the group's clarinetist, Ulf-Guido Schaefer.

Wind ensembles were, historically, the prime vehicle for background entertainment at the smaller German courts, and the Ma'alot seemed to keep this role in mind. The group remained poised between efficiency and amusement. The players plunged into the Piazzolla with special willingness, but neglected, in their effusive earnestness, to make the slightly schmaltzy music feel like fun; similarly, the Joplin was a little earthbound, evoking the happy tootling of a steam calliope.

The Mendelssohn arrangement was similarly serviceable, even satisfying, without necessarily bringing anything new to the work. But if the wind quintet (or "Harmonie") was like the iPod of its day (a vehicle for conveying favorite music to its hearers), the Ma'alot, with its bright textures, from Christian Wetzel's reedy oboe to the bagpipe drone, in the closing dance, of Volker Grewel's horn, did a fine job bringing that across.

Mendelssohn on the Mall continues on Jan. 18 with concerts by the Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio (3 p.m. at the National Academy of Sciences) and by the National Gallery Orchestra (6:30 p.m. at the National Gallery), followed Jan. 25 with a performance by the Fine Arts Quartet (6:30 p.m. at the National Gallery). For a complete schedule of performances, see

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