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The Joyous Sherman Chamber Ensemble

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 9th, 2017

Gerry Itzkoff, Elisabeth Perry, Richard Wolfe, Mary Hammann, Eliot Bailen

Chameleon-like The Sherman Chamber Ensemble continues to re-invent itself, one metamorphosis after the next. The current, yet momentary, configuration has reached new heights on their 35th Anniversary Celebration. In a concert dedicated to the memory of Linda Haberman, they honored this former board member with an event she would have liked to attend. She was there in spirit as well in a large oil portrait. She had a robust sense of humor and a joie de vivre that was remarkable.

Last year I sat in the Millerton Moviehouse Theater in the row before Linda as we watched Oliver Stone’s biopic Snowden. I had no intention of reviewing the movie, but talking to her made me consider writing a review, so I went home and wrote a review. A retired actress, she was the type of intense person who inspired people.

Executive Director Liba Furhman opened with some amusing memories of Linda. Flutist Susan Rotholz played a short solo piece by J.S. Bach in her memory. The music program began with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet whose unusual first movement began with a viola solo played superbly by Richard Wolfe. A double-viola quintet, the violas dominated the music. Mary Hammann on the other viola forcefully articulated an amusing dissenting voice. And Gerry Itzkoff on second violin was notably excellent. This pleasant phantasy harks back to the style of the late 16th century English madrigal.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, Op. 25 for flute, violin, and viola supplies a showcase for the flute and Susan Rotholz, my favorite American flautist, did not disappoint. This early piece by Beethoven dramatizes the delight of early morning birdsong before the arrival of the sun. Each of its seven movements offers varying versions of birdsong mini-symphonies for each of the seven days of the week.

Antonín Dvořák was the type of musician who worked hard at everything he composed—not worrying whether he was achieving a masterpiece, yet the quality of his work remains remarkably high. In this country his most performed chamber music piece is his String Quartet in F flat major, Op. 96, often referred to as his “American” quartet because of its dexterous quilting of American tunes. Just two weeks ago I reviewed this piece played by The Calidore Quartet, a quality performance that focused quite successfully on the folksy Americana aspects of the piece.

The Sherman Ensemble’s version of String Quintet in E flat major, Op. 97, presented a more spirited, unified, and Continental approach to the use of American tunes—more Classical than the Romantic version meted out by Calidore with Op. 96, yet it was the different character and mood of the American tunes which dictated this difference. The prodigious caliber and intensity of the more mature Sherman Ensemble performers offered more joyous lift, as sheer music, than the wry sociological humor endorsed by Calidore.

It’s an amazing tribute to Dvořák that both these varying musical approaches stand up for two compositions written back-to-back during an 1893 summer vacation in Spillville, Iowa. In Op. 96 Calidore offered delight, while the Sherman Ensemble in Op. 97 presented the intoxication of rigor pushed to its flowering potential, the pacing of the latter being substantially faster and more abstract than the poetic and imagistic composition of Op. 96, yet that was due to the different themes of the pieces: Op. 96 being a portrait of small town life, while Op. 97 presenting a broad portrait of American folk music. I was cheered by the Op. 96 Quartet, but stunned by the soaring, intense professionalism in Op. 97 by The Sherman Ensemble’s version. Op. 97 will be performed again on August 4th at the Norfolk Music Shed.

Op. 97 is that rare double-viola quintet—not so surprising if one recalls that Dvořák played the viola. Richard Wolfe on first viola (an 1800 viola from Milan) offered both supple and powerful response to first violinist Elisabeth Perry (they play first violin and first viola in the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra) as she provided the fireworks, especially in the hypnotic Finale, which featured a crescendo as well as a conclusion that raised everyone’s eyelids lifted to their limit. Artistic Director Eliot Bailen on cello provided probing, resonant gravitas.

This marvelous concert in Kent, hosted by James Barron Art, was performed at RT Facts, a lavish, new décor gallery at the site of the former Morrison Gallery. The acoustics were formidable.