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Quintets with Brio by the Sherman Ensemble

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 14th, 2019

From left: Susan Rotholz, Elizabeth Perry, Cenovia Cummins, Richard Wolfe, Eliot Bailen

At RT Facts in Kent this past Saturday evening with a near full moon in mid-sky, the Sherman Ensemble presented an unusual program entitled “Quintets of the Masters.” They opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final string quintet in 1791, String Quintet in E-flat major, K 614. This last chamber work features a near orchestral sound due to two violas while displaying an unusual blending of fugato and rondo.

Cenovia Cummins (she did the violin solos in the film Julie and Julia), concert master of the Riverside Symphony, played first violin in this work and caught the emotion of the 1/16th note runs in the Allegro. In the following Andante the violas of Michael Roth and Richard Wolfe caught fire while Elliot Bailen on cello performed some downhill racing as his cello responded to the violin. The delightful Minuetto delivered a comic surprise with a caricature of a bagpipe trio. This full-tilt minuet gave Mozart an opportunity to show off—he loved to dance the minuet and once quipped superciliously that he would prefer to be a professional dancer rather a laborious musician, for then he could drink much more wine! Here Cummins excelled once more in the breathless race. The contrapuntal inclination of the concluding Allegro sparkled with the bright joyousness for which Mozart’s music remains universally applauded. This was first-rate wine in premium casks of musical performers. Oh, if Mozart had only lived nearly as long as Haydn!

Joan Tower’s quintet Rising (2009) offered many new challenges for the players. I love Tower’s compositions yet had not heard this work. Tower is perhaps the only American composer who has successfully absorbed the dissonant influence of Shostakovich and go on her own way. While a composition like this makes stringent demands on players because of abrupt shifts o tempo and even key changes, the result is that the audience is kept on the edge of their seats. Tower also displays an unpredictable sense of humor that is beguiling.

This flute quintet made virtuoso demands of Susan Rotholz on flute, especially in the ethereal crescendo cadenza that rebuts a powerful dissonant line. The vivid contrast of the flute’s ascending beauty rebuts with emotional uplift the more cerebral dissonance of the strings, so that a stranger beauty is born from the turmoil, much like climbing an Andean mountain and arriving at a panoramic vista. Susan had once before played this quintet under the direction of Joan Tower who often features a musical pattern that arrives at a dead end, then springs forth with the breakthrough joy of inspired rebirth. Elizabeth Perry, Concertmaster of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, on first violin contributed mightily to the intense energy of the work.

String Quartet no. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 87 by Felix Mendelssohn was written in 1845, two years before he died in 1847. The last time I heard this work performed, I thought that the line of the first violin was somewhat weak, but Perry convinced me that that was not true; she turned in a fiercely memorable performance. Like Mozart’s quintet, Mendelssohn’s quintet approaches orchestral sound. The arresting opening Allegro presents a unified, balanced sound among all instruments with greater emphasis on the lower sounds of the violas and cello. The anchor in this piece was Eliot Bailen on cello who was a nearly invisible Atlas to the strings.  The simple harmonies of the Andante roll along but suddenly take on a more sober turn as it becomes more rhythmically emphatic. Growing ever more serious the slow Adagio enters the realm of sadness with an air solace, a movement that I greatly cherished from the warm violas of Roth and Wolfe.

It has been reported that Mendelssohn was unsatisfied with the more cheerful Allegro conclusion. There appears to be an unexplained leap to the happy reversal. While one may unconsciously wonder at the reason for this reversal, which appears so jarringly extroverted against the introverted Adagio, one does take great pleasure in the riding rondo that plows sorrow underground. Perhaps Mendelssohn thought the resolution too formulaic or perhaps he thought it merely a sketch that he would later return to. But we can never know. We can fruitlessly speculate yet enjoy the marvelous leap of faith that all is well, at least for the moment. It remains true that great musicians have a knack of raising rising questions, whether early or late.