An eclectic evening with the New York Chamber Soloists

The varying range of musicianship among the members of the New York Chamber Soloists allowed for an enjoyable, but unstable, night of chamber music.

The New York Chamber Soloists do not fit easily into a mold. 

They champion repertoire for unusual combinations of instruments, which a core ensemble of 12 musicians undertakes in a variety of formations. The ensemble’s age-range extends from musicians in their early thirties to octogenarians. 

What brought the original members together in 1958, and what allows the group to grow and renew itself, is a love of the music they perform. Unfortunately, in last night’s concert at Lincoln Middle School for the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music, this enthusiasm did not quite compensate for the unevenness in professional quality among the group’s players. 

The strongest part of the evening was a late Quintet in B-minor for Clarinet and Strings by Johannes Brahms. Clarinetist Allen Blustine provided warmth and elegant phrasing, particularly in the Adagio movement, which is essentially a showcase for the technical and musical range of his instrument.

The performers echoed each other’s voices sensitively but also blended nicely for Brahms’ swelling, Romantic phrases. Curtis Macomber played with first-rate musicianship at the first violin and was followed attentively by second violinist Harumi Rhodes. Violist Ynez Lynch harmonized elegantly with the other voices while maintaining an appropriately robust but pleasing tone. The Andantino was lithe and spirited.

W.A. Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” on the other hand, was a sore disappointment. 

The ensemble played the piece in its original instrumentation for a quintet of two violinists, violist, cello and double bass. Rhodes took the first violin, but was only able to draw sparse, unstable sounds from her instrument, particularly in the Allegro movement. She continually struggled to keep her bow under control, which led to several unpleasant slips and slides. Although Rhodes is a younger and recent addition to the group, it was hard to forgive the sappy and jarring effect of her repeated ornamentations as she attempted to add charm to Mozart’s somewhat hackneyed melodies.

The group’s phrasing and energy improved as the piece unfolded. Seasoned members Macomber and Lynch provided solid musicianship that nearly distracted from Rhodes’ shortcomings. Another young musician who recently joined the ensemble, double-bassist Tomoya Aomori, played with irreproachable accuracy, but seemed to enjoy the sound of his instrument a bit too much—nearly drowning out the other lower voices.

It came as quite a relief when the piece came to a close and the evening opened to repertoire that is less familiar.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Violin, and Double Bass is a playful, if not somewhat disjointed, attempt to write ballet music for a travelling troupe. The opening theme has an absurdist quality that recalls a sensibility expressed by Prokofiev's contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, but suffice it to say that Stravinsky was the more successful composer of ballets.

The group’s founder, oboist Mel Kaplan, may have chosen the quintet because of the prominent part assigned to his instrument, and he clearly took great joy in bringing the piece together. After a somewhat shaky start that is also rooted in the enigmatic quality of the music, the ensemble proved its ability to perform with virtuosic speed and precision during the third Allegro movement.

Blustine's supple, lyrical playing meshed well with Kaplan’s sound. Macomber demonstrated a mastery over the different sonorities of his instrument, ranging from harmonic slides to challenging chromatic passages. Aomori blended well with the group, but also enjoyed the spotlight during a moment of pizzicato that drew attention to the experimental nature of Prokofiev’s composition.

The New York Chamber Soloists’ genuine approach to music-making is refreshing in an age of hyped-up commercial artists and artificial attempts to revive the Classical music tradition. That being said, it was somewhat painful to see musicians as skilled as Macomber and Blustine aside performers just starting out in their careers.


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