Immersive, one-composer festivals are proving to be the ideal way to come to an understanding that is more than recordings, pre-concert lectures, critics and books. And when such festivals are held in communities and venues where the artists can mingle leisurely and informally with the audience after the concerts, the musicians themselves find fresh inspiration and often seem to recapture the excitement of first playing this music which they love so much and which forms such a central part of their repertoire and instrumental DNA. So when the New Hollywood String Quartet came on stage before the concert started to thank the audience on behalf of all the musicians for their support at each of the previous seven concerts in their all Brahms Summer Festival in South Pasadena, it was clear that the feeling was mutual.

New Hollywood String Quartet © Sam Muller
New Hollywood String Quartet
© Sam Muller

The Violin Sonata in D minor, Op.108, was magical from the start. Cho-Liang Lin eased into the opening bars, Rohan De Silva was discreet, with a rich Brahmsian sound, not heavy but rolling likes waves of beauty, playing as if the music were a religious sacrament; together they spoke through their phrasing to fashion a compelling narrative. After Lin's intoxicating double stops at the end of the third movement they played the Finale as if it were an old friend.

The Piano Quartet no. 3 in C minor, in which De Silva was joined by Cho Liang Lin, Che-Yen Chen and Paul Watkins, was considerably more intense, emphasizing its storm-tossed emotional range. Paul Watkins' solo opening the Andante was particularly eloquent and overall the performance was larger than life.

After intermission Wilkie led Rafael Rishik, Brophy, Andrew Schulman and Watkins in a Brahms Sextet Op.36 that began as an unbroken flow of lyricism, relatively restrained as if less were actually, more, and then after the repeat came out in magnificent form, hearty and gorgeous.

After the Sextet there was no way the audience was going to let the players go without an encore. And they responded with an encore that characterized the whole spirit of the Festival, a tender, bittersweet, slightly remixed arrangement of Brahms' Lullaby created the day before on a whim by John Eidsvoog that sent the audience home looking forward to Franz Schubert in 2020.

Pianist, composer, arranger, orchestrator and copyist Eidsvoog had been playing light jazz at a party Friday night when someone quipped, “Do you know any Brahms? Everyone laughed and Eidsvoog played what he described as "a twisted version of Brahms’ Lullaby" which the musicians offered to play as an encore if he arranged it for sextet. They tried it at rehearsal on Sunday and decided to go ahead with it. It was the perfect digestif.

****1