On the opening night of its 8-day, 25-work Summer of Brahms Chamber Music Festival, when the New Hollywood String Quartet's violist Robert Brophy announced to the large, bustling audience at the South Pasadena Public Library Community Room's Carnegie Stage that first violinist Tereza Stanislav had suffered a rotator cuff injury on 4th July and was hors de combat, hearts sank.

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

When Brophy announced that Roger Wilkie, concertmaster of the Long Beach Symphony and one of the most sweet-toned concertmaster types in town, would be be the replacement, hearts rose again. And in performances of Brahms' A minor Quartet and F minor Piano Quintet, Wilkie fitted in almost as if he had been the group's first violinist for years; he even soared transcendently as first violinists in Brahms' chamber music are often meant to do. But as well as he played, and as well as the other three-quarters of the Quartet melded with him musically, and then with pianist Orion Weiss, it was left to a 21-year old Colburn School student, violist Johanna Nowik, to save the day.

From the outset of Op.51, no.2, substituted for the originally-scheduled Op.67 to accommodate the stand-in first violinist, the Quartet was intent on filling the intimate yet resonant hall with as much of their relentlessly luscious sound as they could, tempered only by Wilkie's gentler instincts and inspired by his leadership and virtuosity. It was as convincing a mixture of polish and spontaneity under trying circumstances as one could imagine.

By contrast, Nowik gave a ravishing performance of Brahms' Viola Sonata no. 2 in E flat major that was also finely-nuanced and sonically graduated; this was no mere viola trying to sound like a violin. In its original form as a clarinet sonata, it connects to Brahms' affection for the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld perhaps as much as for the clarinet. Hearing Nowik surrendering herself to the marvelous triplets that dot the Allegro amabile was to reaffirm the deeply moving emotions that the music has on its own in whatever guise. And while Weiss at a Steinway with its lid open all the way played in a bold, forthright not exactly rich, Brahmsian way, Nowik gave as good as she got and in the process tamed the pianist, inhabited the music in a most convincing way, and charmed the audience.

When Weiss returned with the Quartet after intermission in the great F minor Quintet, they filled the hall almost to overflowing with their super Romantic, heart and keyboard-pounding sounds, even Wilkie being swept up into the general excitement.

Despite getting only three-quarters of the New Hollywood String Quartet, the results with Wilkie were often sublime and attested to the ability of top professionals knowledgable about the repertoire to step into a very challenging situation almost without missing a beat. In fact, adding Wilkie to the crew reflected the ambitious nature of a Festival that already included on its roster for Brahms' various sonatas, trios, quartets, quintets and sextets the concertmasters of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Martin Chalifour and Margaret Batjer; the principal cellists of the same two orchestras, Roger deMaine and Andrew Shulman; plus violinist Rafael Rishik, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellists Lynn Harrell and Paul Watkins, the latter from the Emerson Quartet.

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