The latest Curtis Summerfest faculty concert concluded with an exceptionally powerful performance of Shostakovich’s intensely emotional quintet for piano and string quartet. Most of the five musicians on the Field Concert Hall stage were Curtis graduates, playing on the same stage they played on as students. They gave the quintet the kind of passionate life they would have given it in their younger days, enhanced by the skill and mature insight of veteran performers.
Charles Abramovic’s piano provided a strong, poetic presence and the four string players seized all the opportunities created by Shostakovich’s unbroken stream of inventive musical effects. Some of the older members of the audience may have shared my pleasure in hearing Scott St. John play the first violin part, with its beautiful violin solo in the intermezzo.
The student becomes the teacher
When I first heard Scott St. John almost 30 years ago, he was making his first concert appearances while still a student at Curtis. He’s been based in New York for most of the years since then, but he occasionally surfaces in Philadelphia and his name on the program always arouses expectations along with fond memories.
The one musician on the program who wasn’t a Curtis graduate was Rebecca Harris, a violinist who’s becoming a familiar figure to the local early music audience. She plays with Tempesta di Mare and serves as the concertmaster of the Choral Arts/Bach Festival period instrument orchestra. This is the first time I’ve heard her play a modern violin and she proved she can handle the long-necked instrument just as well as she plays its short-necked ancestor.
The evening began with Harris and St. John joining violist Sharon Wei in a work by another Curtis grad. David Ludwig’s 2015 "Rule of Three" explores the idea that music is governed by the rule that you do everything three times. First you state your theme; then you repeat it to establish it in the listener’s mind; and then you develop it.
It’s a premise that in the wrong hands could have produced a lifeless formal exercise. But there’s nothing bloodless about Ludwig’s approach to composition. In his hands, the formal idea generated six short, beautifully emotional sonatas in the same way the formal rules of the sonnet can inspire the eloquence and passion of poets like Shakespeare and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
The two other items on the program were primarily showcases for two of the wind players on the faculty: Horn player Ellen Dinwiddie-Smith and oboist Katherine Needleman.
The horn showcase was a Tchaikovsky piano nocturne arranged for horn, violin, and piano. The Swiss cellist/composer David Riniker arranged it for horn virtuoso Sarah Willis, his colleague in the Berlin Philharmonic, and it’s one of those arrangements that sounds like the piece was originally written for the new instrumental combination.
Rebecca Harris and pianist Patrick Kreeger had their moments but the attention getter was Dinwiddie-Smith’s musical, flowing horn line. The only flaw in her performance was its brevity. It ended far too soon.
Needleman joined pianist Amy J. Yang in a three movement sonata by Francis Poulenc. The sonata didn’t include any of the connections with jazz and night life that run through Poulenc’s work, but it displayed the basic qualities that have lifted him to a spot on my personal A-list in the last few years. It’s urban, not pastoral, and it’s spare and economical, like the best writing from the first half of the 20th century.