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The Cassatt String Quartet Soars at Music Mountain

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jun 26th, 2016

Colin Carr

Sunday’s afternoon concert at Gordon Hall enjoyed perfect summer weather. For openers The Cassatt String Quartet played an excerpt from Romanza (1974) by Daniel S. Godfrey who is currently Director of Music and Composition at Syracuse University. He is also the founder and co-director of the Seal Bay Festival of American Chamber Music. The quartet played the slow second movement of this neo-romantic composition, inviting comparison to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s quartet. The viola line excelled in this piece and Jennifer Leshnower brought out its sweetness with finesse.

When a carpenter whistles, listen closely. That’s the anecdote behind the origin of the melody in Tchaikovsky’s second movement of his first string quartet (1871), which marks his first masterwork. The composer overheard a worker whistling a folk tune at his sister Sasha’s house in Ukraine. During that second movement Andante of Tchaikovsky’s first String Quartet in D major, Op. 11, when it was played at a Moscow Conservatory concert in December 1876 with Pyotr Ilyich sitting at Lev Tolstoy’s elbow, Lev burst into tears. That was the only time Tchaikovsky ever met his literary hero, who temporarily alienated him by fatuously snarking “Beethoven lacked talent.” Nikolai Gogol was Tchaikovsky’s favorite dead author, yet he purportedly read Tolstoy’s Childhood and Boyhood (1852-54) ten times. Tchaikovsky did not live to read Tolstoy’s 1899 masterpiece Resurrection because poor Pyotr was bullied into suicide in 1893.  

While I did not notice outright tears or profuse weeping at Gordon Hall, my own eyes experienced some welling, yet not so serious that I had to leave my seat. Tchaikovsky re-arranged that second movement for cello and string orchestra in 1880. He had originally intended to write the piece as a symphony, but circumstances compelled him to write a chamber music piece because he could not afford to hire so many musicians at a time when his intent was to raise money, so that he could continue to compose.

The opening sonata movement with its attractive neo-classical simplicity gives way to syncopation in 9/8 time with both major and minor themes. The emotionally moving Andante Cantabile mingles sorrow and beauty. That fifteen-second folk tune ditty (the lyrics of which are inane doggerel) sounds like it’s endlessly extended. The four note pizzicato ostinato by cellist Elizabeth Anderson was memorably rendered. The following Scherzo peasant dance movement lilts with extraordinary energy and grace, while the carefree concluding sonata movement happily resolves themes and ornamental lines, the latter effect being what Tchaikovsky ever excelled at. The quartet played with impressive unity.

First violinist Muneko Otani soared with passion in the Tchaikovsky yet rose to sublime heights in Franz Schubert’s Cello Quintet in C major, D. 956, Schubert’s last major work. This long double cello quintet (of which there are not many in the repertoire—Sergei Taneyev’s String Quartet in G major being another notable achievement, although in the baroque mode Luigi Boccherini wrote over a hundred cello concertos, many of them double cello concertos). Liverpool-born Colin Carr, Professor of Music, Cello and Chamber Music at Stony Brook (with fifteen recording disks to his credit), on bass cello joined Cassatt for this piece, contributing gravitas and commanding rhythmic presence when needed. The quartet played with unerring sympathy and obvious pleasure while Muneko Otani soared furiously on first violin.

Famed oboe soloist Bert Lucarelli sat at a card table outside signing his new book, We Can’t Always Play Waltzes: Conversations with Bert Lucarelli.

Next Sunday at Music Mountain provides an unusual treat with Cantata Profana who will play Beethoven's Septet and Schubert's famous Octect. The following Sunday Peter Serkin and Julia Hsu will be performing a Piano 4 Hands concert. For more information go to