by Lindsay Koob
Uh-oh. You know the festival is winding down when you start seeing a few rows of empty seats at the Dock Street Chamber Series. As I took my seat for Friday morning’s concert, I felt a sharp pang of impending loss, since — after this one — there’s only a single program to go.
“Today we’re celebrating girl power,” said host Geoff Nuttall as he appeared to introduce the morning’s first music, the Piano Quintet No. 1 in A Minor, by 19th-century French female composer Louise Farrenc, probably the most successful lady tunesmith of her male-dominated era. By dint of sheer talent and achievement, she enjoyed a distinguished performing career and became a respected professor of piano (for 30 years) at the Paris Conservatory. Her remarkable music has fallen into comparative obscurity — undeservedly so, considering its rare craftsmanship and immediate musical appeal, qualities that were in ample evidence here.
Modeled loosely after Schubert’s famous Trout Quintet (we’ll hear it in the final program), she used the same unusual instrumentation (a double bass instead of a second violin), but that’s where the similarity ends. Farrenc’s minor-hued dramatic power and poignant outpourings (especially in the first and fourth movements) are sharply different from Schubert’s exuberant romp, except perhaps in her comparatively carefree Scherzo movement. I’m so glad to have heard it, even though I’m now compelled to buy a recording (there are a couple of good ones out there). Pianist Inon Barnatan dealt expertly and passionately with his challenging piano part, and the strings players (Geoff, Hsin-Yun Huang, Chris Costanza, and Tony Manzo) played with conviction and engaging spirit. If you haven’t yet gotten to know Farrenc, you must.
The second event — Tom Johnson’s Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass — served as the concert’s comic relief. To double bass maestro Tony Manzo fell the definitely very difficult task of playing varied passages on his instrument while reciting a rather pointless (but funny) text that has to do with the prospect of his failure to perform it properly. Or, rather, his success in failing (the alleged goal of the work). Or, perhaps, even his failure to succeed in failing. Or something like that. But comprehending the confusing flow of words wasn’t the important thing for the audience. Our function was to simply enjoy Tony’s deadpan demeanor and well-executed dual performance.
“Girl power” returned in the final number, but this time personified by its star performer, violinist Livia Sohn who played with pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Their music was Beethoven’s so-called “Kreutzer” sonata, a legendary work that has figured prominently in later music from other composers, as well as great literature. Now you might think that Livia — a rather diminutive young lady, her cute little “baby-bump” showing — was too tiny (and in too delicate a condition) to deal with all the heavy power and angry drama of this piece. But you’d be mistaken, because she tore into the music like a hungry tiger, and Pedja was with her every step of the way. Sure, there’s some relief, especially in the central movement’s set of imaginative and (often) sprightly variations as well as in the finale’s “chase music.” But it remains one of the toughest (for both players) of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas. And I haven’t experienced a concert performance of it that was this good since I heard violin god Nathan Milstein toss it off as a boy of 14 in Vienna.
For heaven’s sake — and your own — don’t miss this series’ amazing final program (Saturday AND Sunday).