Chamber IX: Elizabeth Futral captivates crowd

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“Welcome to my living room at Dock Street,” cried Geoff Nuttall as he took the stage for his series’ ninth program. “This is what we do for fun,” he continued, “playing great music for family and friends.” Thus did Nuttall remind us of Chamber music’s original purpose over the centuries, long before the advent of the boob tube and the information age. Among cultured European families, almost everybody (even the kids) played some instrument. Said families and their friends would often gather of an evening at somebody’s home, and while away the night in joyful classical jam-sessions. The demand for fresh “house music” is what kept many composers busy and well-fed. And that's the spirit and ambience that we get, year after year, here at Dock Street.

First up was the last work in this year’s juicy mini-Mozart festival (in all, four major works since Chamber II): the wondrous Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor. Mozart wonder Pedja Muzijevic (see my previous post) was back at the piano — with Geoff, Hsin-Yun Huang, and Alisa Weilerstein attending to the strings parts. One of the most glorious among Mozart’s chamber works, the opening movement’s dark and doleful minor-key mutterings and dramatic outbursts reminded us that even the usually sunny-spirited “Wolfie” had his down days. The mood lightened a bit in the central slow movement, despite moments of wistful sadness. Only in the bouncy final Rondo did the gloomy pall lift completely, with the theme coming back at us in varied animated guises. Pure pleasure.

Our next treat was the series’ fourth vocal number thus far. “I’ve been poaching singers from other festival events,” Nuttall said, as he introduced us for the second time to soprano Elizabeth Futral, the star of Kaija Saariaho’s opera Émilie. (see Blake Stevens’ “crazy good” review of her previous chamber appearance).

She took the stage, along with the usual “mini-orchestra” of other series regulars, for G.F. Handel’s drop-dead-difficult aria, “Da Tempeste,” from his opera Julius Caesar. Her audience — to a person — sat in rapt, open-mouthed wonder as Futral negotiated the aria’s tricky, high-speed runs and hairpin turns with passionate abandon and beautiful, even tone from top to bottom. The way she laid down her notes like smooth strings of gleaming pearls was absolutely breathtaking. And she made it all look easy, as only the great ones can. Afterwards, amid our thunderous ovation, you could see folks glancing around at each other, as if to confirm that what they’d just experienced was real.

Finally, we were blessed with the meaty sound and rich romance of Russian composer Anton Arensky in his Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor. While much of his music is held in comparatively low esteem, even the stuffiest of musicologists tend to agree that this piece makes up for it. And that point was driven home hard by our performers: pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Livia Sohn, and cellist Chris Costanza. From the work’s over-the-top opening passion, through its joyous central romp and episodes of deep Russian melancholy to its explosively exultant finale, the audience hung on for dear life in one of the series’ wildest musical rides to date. Many there no doubt noticed that the work’s perky second movement has often been heard on NPR as “station identification” music.

Aww, I wasn’t gonna do it — but I can’t resist sharing with you a final, slightly risqué funny from Nuttall — delivered just before the final number. In speaking of Costanza, his close friend and fellow St. Lawrence Quartet member, he mused aloud about whether he’s spent more quality time over the past five or six years with his wife, Livia, or with Chris — with whom he practices, performs and tours on a daily basis. They’ve even shared motel rooms on tour. He thus came to the conclusion that Chris probably wins out in terms of overall time together. Still, he qualified that by saying, “But Livia is pregnant — and Chris is not!” How’s that for uninhibited lack of formality under classical circumstances?

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