There are some classical concerts that really portray the absolute essence of what music is all about. If we’re lucky we experience one of these a year, but they’re very hard to come by because these experiences require something very specific. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Robert McDuffie’s performance of Philip Glass’ violin concerto The American Four Seasons at the Zeeuwse Concertzaal was one of these concerts. All the ingredients were there: the music, intense enjoyment and passion from the musicians, a modesty in playing and performing that allowed for no hoopla but only music.

Robert McDuffie, © Christian Steiner
Robert McDuffie,
© Christian Steiner

The American Four Seasons was written specifically for McDuffie in 2009, and performances like these make it obvious why. He makes the most of every single note, you can tell that he breathes this music – that it is part of him. The work is technically challenging – not unlike the original Four Seasons – but it was easily handled by McDuffie. Even more impressive, though, was the richness and colour with which he played the powerful melodies of the work. It is these melodies, combined with the strong background consisting entirely of strings, that make this piece so extraordinary. There is a simplicity about them, but despite (or perhaps because of) this they seemed to delve deep into the human experience. I cannot imagine anyone listening to this piece and not being affected to the core of their being.

Consisting of eight movements, Philip Glass modeled his violin concerto after Vivaldi’s masterpiece, with added solo “songs” at the beginning and between the traditional movements. These solo pieces were beautiful and succinct, perfect little interludes between the much more emotionally draining movements. The references to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons ranged from obvious to much more cryptic, but The American Four Seasons deserves to become a classic in its own right.

The Amsterdam Sinfonietta are a chamber music ensemble that can make any piece sound exciting – but tonight they exceeded any expectations I might have had. There was an obvious chemistry between all the musicians, and all the nuances and juxtapositions in Glass’ music were portrayed so beautifully: it was dark yet light, loud and soft, depressing and uplifting. Of course this is partly because of what a great composition the work is – but I cannot imagine a better performance. This was one of those concerts where you experience an intense gratitude for simply having been present and having been able to witness something so beautiful, so intense and so essential.

Given this performance, it was quite a challenge for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta to make the program after the break sound just as enticing. But still, Dutch composer Tristan Keuris’ Variations for Strings was wonderful. A short piece, it is much less focused on melody than Glass’ concerto, but there was an instant rhythmic drive that kept it exciting. The fluidity and flowing nature of the violin parts was emphasized by the positioning of the musicians on the stage, the sound often flowing from one side to the other.

John Adams’ Shaker Loops was next on the program – a lighter piece than the other two, but no less fascinating. Whenever I see Shaker Loops performed live I am still surprised that all these sounds are created by string instruments: at times I could swear there was a flute secretly playing along in the foyer. The familiar drive and energy that Adams’ works often have is perhaps most pronounced in this piece. The “Shaker” in the title refers to tremolos in the strings and the “loops” to tape music loops – small fragments that can be perpetually repeated. The piece consists of four movements that blend together seamlessly, and it is one of those works that you could never pick just one movement out of – it really feels like one long, flowing movement. One of the things I love about it is its calm ending where the music just fades away, an ending that you wouldn’t expect at first but that suits it so perfectly. Shaker Loops, despite its drive and repetition, is a calming and soothing work that made for a more than satisfying ending to the evening. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta once again proved their worth in this performance; everything was spot on. This is all the more impressive when you realize that playing a work so dependent on timing and rhythm playing without a conductor can’t be an easy feat. But the Amsterdam Sinfonietta certainly didn’t struggle and delivered one of the most beautiful evenings of music I have witnessed in a while.

*****