The loosely-affiliated Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert, now in its ninth season at the museum, illustrates all that is good about music-making among friends – and even family members. Two sets of siblings and numerous old friends were on stage for a concert of music inspired by the completion of the museum’s new wing of American art. The lineup included the eminent violinists Jennifer and Laura Frautschi; cellist Eric Jacobsen and his violinist brother Colin, co-founders of the Brooklyn Rider quartet and The Knights chamber orchestra; violist Nicholas Cords; and bassist Kurt Muroki. Cellist Edward Arron, the group’s music director, also introduced each piece. The radiating good will, plus an inventive and gratifying program, made for a night of delightful listening.

Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert; photo © Rahav Segev, The New York Times
Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert; photo
© Rahav Segev, The New York Times

“You had dessert first,” Arron joked after playing Amy Beach’s Dreaming, for cello and piano. He played this short but very sweet piece with obvious commitment, dignifying its simple, Romantic melody with rich tone and thoughtful phrasing. Pianist Bernard Rose, in his only role of the evening, employed a light touch to gracefully support this song without words.

Next on the program was Henry Cowell’s Seven Paragraphs (1925) for string trio, a collection of musical character studies. In terse pieces of almost Webernian brevity, Cowell modulates in ways that are just this side of unexpected, with varied texture and counterpoint that keeps the ear guessing. He was in his late 20s when he wrote it, Arron explained, and the piece in microcosm exemplifies the varied timbres and harmonic adventurousness of his later work. Arron was joined by Cords and Colin Jacobsen, who gave the piece a thoughtful, pristine performance.

The highlight of the program was John Adams’ Shaker Loops (1978), an early work for string septet that is more frequently heard in its full orchestral version. Transparent, shimmering, lively, and oddly emotional, the work is the masterpiece of Adams’ minimalist idiom. Seemingly simple motifs have endlessly variable discussions with each other, often eschewing straightforward repetition in order to gradually build new ideas from unexpected elements. The busy opening, in which the three violins stay within close intervals of each other, gives the impression that each part has the same “loop,” but a closer listen reveals that they each alternate between faster and slower figures. Listening is like watching a rainstorm over a lake – energy flitting from part to part, constantly holding your attention.

The ensemble quickly found the meditative quality that is a hallmark of the work, sustaining a dynamic level for long stretches to highlight textural changes, and swelling or fading in perfect coordination. The players had an unusually clean, smooth, and transparent tone throughout, even as the waves of sound built up to the climaxes in the third movement. Among the highlights of the tight ensemble playing was their careful handling of the harmonics that end the piece in a quiet, transcendent mood. It was thrilling to listen to.

Dvořák has always been associated with the United States, thanks to his American sojourn in the 1890s and his “New World” Symphony, a perennial favorite. But musicologists still debate the extent to which his genuine interest in American folk music influenced his own work. Just as the slow movement of the “New World” Symphony is supposedly inspired by African-American spirituals, the String Quintet no. 3 supposedly contains snippets of native American songs and drumbeat patterns. In any event, the Quintet – written in Spillville, Iowa in 1893 – is one of Dvořák’s finest chamber works, combining haunting melodies with richly chromatic harmonies and propulsive, shifting rhythms.

Despite a few flaws, the performance was as charming and irresistible as it should be. The violins had a thinner sound than desired in louder sections, but otherwise changed their tone to match the work’s various moods, alternately brooding or whimsical. The slow third movement, a theme and variations steeped in Czech nostalgia, was played with plenty of pathos, and the finale, a jaunty rondo, alternated between a toe-tapping tune and chant-like drones, though occasionally the ensemble playing sounded less tight than it had been in the Adams. Nonetheless, it was a fitting end to a wonderful concert that deserved all the love it got from the audience.