Between the end of the Cleveland Orchestra Severance Hall season and its summer concerts at Blossom Music Center, there has long been a musical "dead zone” in the city. Three years ago the orchestra's principal clarinet, Franklin Cohen, and his violinist daughter Diana Cohen began a chamber music festival that would fill the gap. Now in it's fourth season, ChamberFest Cleveland is a brilliant – and mostly sold-out – series of adventurous concerts in interesting venues around the city, played by extremely fine, mostly young, hand-picked musicians from around the United States.

Alban Berg
Alban Berg

Thursday's "Music for a Summer Evening" was a typical example of the festival's diversity, with its combination of the familiar (Haydn) and adventurous (Crumb), performed at the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Mixon Hall with its full-height glass curtain wall looking outside upon the institute’s garden as the evening light waned.

Few composers have as alert an ear for musical timbre as George Crumb. His Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) of 1974 filled the second half of this concert. The work is scored for two amplified pianos, performed with intrepid virtuosity by Orion Weiss and Roman Rabinovich, and a vast array of percussion, with The Cleveland Orchestra principal percussionist Marc Damoulakis, and the equally talented Scott Christian. It was a sonic spectacular, with alluring sounds created with unorthodox methods, from the almost silent resonance of notes tapped on piano strings with the piano’s damper pedal held open, to deafening blasts of gongs, glittering tuned percussion and enormous clusters on the pianos. The boundaries between the movements were porous, making it difficult to keep track of the overall structure of the piece. Despite the dynamic and musical range, Crumb’s music never seemed random, but had forward movement, interspersed with silence and extreme calm. Nor did his extended instrumental techniques (for example, the marimba player whistling with each note that he played) seem contrived. The technical skills and musicianship of these four musicians was beyond praise. This was a performance that will remain in memory for a long time.

The concert opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in B flat major “Sunrise” in an elegant performance that benefited from the crystalline acoustics of Mixon Hall. David Bowlin and Alexi Kenney (violins), Dimitri Murrath (viola), and Clive Greensmith (cello) do not perform regularly as a quartet, and these ChamberFest Cleveland concerts are rehearsed in a brief but intense period before the beginning of each season, so the unity of ensemble and phrasing was remarkable. The first movement, with its arching theme giving the quartet its nickname, was a series of contrasts, slow/agitated, quiet/forceful. The second movement Adagio was notable for the silences between phrases that were full of portent, parsing Haydn’s musical sentences. The Menuetto was a jolly dance, while the unity of ensemble in the fourth movement, with it’s English folksong-like tune, was especially impressive.

Benjamin Britten was 18 when he wrote his Phantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello. Although clearly a youthful work, Britten’s compositional and instrumental techniques were already surprisingly mature and reappear in the yet-to-come chamber operas. Nathan Hughes, principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, was featured, along with Yehonatan Berick (violin), Jennifer Stumm (viola) and Julie Albers (cello). The work is based on a two-note motif in the cello, developed into an ungainly loping march. Hughes was up to Britten’s challenging writing, at one point entering on an unprepared, exposed high note, playing with beautiful tone and technical prowess. Stumm’s playing of the prominent viola part in the quartet’s central section was lovely. Although this performance did not have the finesse of other performances on this concert, it was still a worthy reading of Britten’s early quartet.

It would be hard to top the oddity of Alban Berg’s arrangement of Johann Strauss’s waltz Wine, Women, and Song for harmonium (Rabinovich), piano (Weiss) and string quintet Jinjoo Cho and Mari Sato (violins), Murrath, Greensmith and Nathan Farrington (double bass). Berg’s arrangement was made in 1921 for one of Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances concerts after Berg had already composed his groundbreaking opera Wozzeck. But not a hint of expressionist angst is to be found here. The harmonium is used to fill in Strauss’s harmonies, and the piano provides filigree around the string ensemble’s quite straightforward waltz performance. The ensemble seemed too earnest in their interpretation; they did not observe the stereotypical “lift” and early placement of the second beat of a measure that is a hallmark of the Viennese waltz style. (Is it perhaps an inborn trait of Austrian musicians to know how to do it?) But by the end, they had more fully gotten into the swing of things, and, most of all, it was fun!

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