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Mozart Vs. Atomization at the Music Shed

July 11, 2017

The Millbrook Independent  (July 8, 2017)  By Kevin T. McEneaney

(From left) Boris Berman, Serena Canin, Nina Lee, Mark, Misha Amory

Melvin Chen, the new music director of the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, offered a program entitled “First & Second Viennese School.” A student sextet opened with a Divertimento by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K 213. Written in 1775 this Divertimento was one of the numerous outdoor entertainment numbers that Mozart wrote to uplift a wedding, birthday, or festive al-fresco banquet. One might enjoy such a public piece of music while conversing without losing the ability to enjoy the music or conversation. Musically slight, but charming and cheerful, Mozart could enhance the memories of any occasion.

This was followed by Anton Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Cello, Op. 11 with the Yale School of Music’s Boris Berman on piano and Nina Lee on cello. The startling contrast that this extremely short piece highlighted was that music had now become atomized, fragmented. Such was the reaction of many painters, poets, and musicians to the horrors of WWI. In this fragmentation dwelt a lyrical density hitherto unimagined. It’s a bit like saying “put away your George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) novel and let’s read e .e. cummings.” Instead of a rolling celebration of a melody, a single scrape of the cello explodes with drama. Dramatic and curious, the point was strongly made.

The Adagio from Alban Berg’s Kammerknzert with Berman on piano, Mark Steinberg on violin, and [Norfolk Fellow] Jesse McCandless on clarinet followed, this being Berg’s secondary arrangement of the original for 15 instruments. What was most noticeable was the incredible density of the piece which offers a palindrome, the first half composed in the Prime and the second half in Retrograde, where the piano provides the Archimedean lever. Unlike the Webern, this had returning rhythmic themes and felt as classical as it was modern, yet the robust abstraction was far from the easy emotional engagement that appeared at Mozart’s fingertips. A short Adagio and Fugue in c minor, Kk 546, by Mozart, played by the Callisto Quartet (a group of capable young Norfolk Fellows), enhanced the latter observation, yet their interpretation offered a more edgy presentation than a straight traditional baroque version — an aspect that was novel and exciting.

A short intermission allowed everyone at the Shed to enjoy the cool air on delightful grounds. We were rounded up for the second half by a dozen bright-eyed horn players who made the audience feel that they were at a royal court. Berman played Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, by Arnold Schoenberg. Once again granite density appears with lyric power. Time seems to slow down as if your brain was influenced by a new drug. Lyrical cliffs appear all around one’s ears. One moves slowly through each second as if exploring a new universe of wonder.

Mozart’s Piano Quartet in g minor, K. 478, offered a satisfying conclusion to this debate with Boris Berman on piano, Mark Steinberg on violin, Misha Amory on viola, and Nina Lee on cello. This delightful quartet is often played at concerts. Here we have the piano engaging and questioning the other instruments in musical conversation with repeated melody. The real delight in this piece resides in the concluding Allegretto where all the instruments suggest an ending yet the conversation is surprisingly kept alive by another instrument. The conversation is so genial and convivial that no instrument wants the piece to conclude. And the conclusion is so delightful that everyone must always stand and applaud no matter how many times one has heard this quartet. Mozart always cheers me up and stimulates my brain. A new neuro-science paper on cortical oscillations of apical dendrites in the brain by David LaBerge and Ray Kasevich describe five or six layers of pyramidal threads operating through musical tunings. Mozart plays those tunings for me.

Yet I think there was another reason why Melvin Chen chose this quartet: it provides the model for many of Antonín Dvořák’s later string quartets. From July 21 to August 11 the Norfolk Festival presents a special focus on the music of Dvořák. Chen is adroit in creating these types of musical links. The new director has put together a wonderful program schedule that has re-invigorated the Norfolk Festival. Although nearly an hour’s drive from Millbrook along Route 44, it’s an easy drive. The Music Shed has recently been remodeled and the spacious two story building has new powerful fans silently spinning overhead. You won’t be disappointed.