Concertante Rises above the Challenge

The string sextet "Concertante" proved itself resilient as well as musically polished in a concert for Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music on Saturday.

In an ensemble as small as a sextet, it would seem daunting to lose one of its players to illness at the last minute. Concertante did not balk at the prospect last night, presenting a program of Sir Edward Elgar, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Johannes Brahms with cohesive and sensitive musicianship.

James Wilson, who stepped in for core cellist Sarah Carter, blended gracefully with the ensemble's intuitive execution of Romantic music. There is an Introspective quality to the players' individual performances that can yield at the right moments to collectively focused, thoughtful interpretations.

The strongest piece of the evening was Brahms’ sublime String Sextet No.2 in G-major. Xiao-Dong Wang played with supple phrasing and accuracy at the first violin. Soaring melodies escalated into an intense drama without detracting from a subtle dialogue among the different voices. The middle sections explore more serene, yet nearly haunting, sonorities for which the group adopted an appropriately soft touch.

Violist Rachel Shapiro’s playing was evocative and gentle. Wang brought forth a warm but bright pianissimo. The musicians moved easily from forceful attacks to gentle stratospheric passages, bringing the music to a resounding closure in the final Poco allegro. Cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach’s visceral playing was incredibly powerful.

This electricity was not always present in Korngold’s String Sextet in D-major. Known as the “father of film music” for his contributions to Hollywood after his family fled the Nazis, the composer wrote the piece in Vienna when he was only 17. Korngold explores a wide variety of thematic material, particularly in the Intermezzo, which evokes Waltz-like melodies before it dissolves into a struggle among instruments that demonstrates strikingly mature and vivid writing.

Wang executed the dance rhythms with exuberance and authenticity. He also managed to play the incredibly high-pitched ethereal sounds in the first movement without grating the ear. Shapiro played with some trepidation, but anchored the group with attention to the flow and structure of the piece.

Rapid transitions from passages of pizzicato to chromatic runs were clean, but the group’s phrasing sounded too perfect at times. The music calls for a more unrestrained reaction that was lost in the group’s concentration. The only exception was Gerlach, who even broke a string in the first movement, and played with a consistently magnetic presence.

The opening piece, Elgar’s Serenade in E-minor, revealed a skillful blending of texture and effective dynamic flow. Originally written for a small string orchestra, the ensemble played an adaptation by violinist and violist Ara Gregorian, a member of Concertante. Wang’s pianissimo was somewhat strained at times during the Larghetto, but nonetheless moving.


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