Vienna, Virginia—Wolf Trap’s “Barns” have for years served as an intimate performance space for popular contemporary singers and instrumentalists. But this rustic, warm, intimate venue also supports classical musicians, singers, and ensembles as well. The Barns’ popular summer program, for example, highlights operas and additional musicales courtesy of the Wolf Trap Opera Company, an organization with an uncanny knack for picking the opera superstars of tomorrow.
During the winter and spring months of the year, the Barns hosts Wolf Trap’s “Discovery Series” of classical chamber concerts. Each concert features notable artists in programs that are sometimes off the beaten classical path. As a national outreach from the Nation’s only national park dedicated to the performing arts, concerts are recorded and later re-broadcast on almost 250 radio stations across the country.
There’s an educational component to the Discovery Series as well. Each concert event offers the audience a chance to quiz the musicians at halftime. Ticketholders can also meet and greet the artists after the concert at a dessert reception held in the adjacent lounge area.
Last weekend’s Discovery recital featured the eclectic Aspen Ensemble, a quintet that mixes and matches instrumentalists depending on what pieces happen to be on tap. They perform at Aspen’s famed annual music festival and are currently in residence at the University of Baltimore.
Performing last Friday evening, the Ensemble’s instrumentalists include violinist David Perry, violist Victoria Chiang, cellist Michael Mermagen, flutist Nadine Asin, and pianist Rita Sloan. Their program bookended a relatively recent piece by Bohuslav Martinů with more traditional selections from Beethoven and Brahms.
The artists opened their program with some unfamiliar Beethoven, his Serenade for Flute, Violin, and Viola, Op. 25 (1801). Most of us today are familiar with things like Muzak (aka, “elevator music”) and other recorded music piped into restaurants, bars, and department stores to provide background sound.
In some ways, things weren’t very different in the 18th and 19th centuries. The young Mozart composed sets of chamber tunes called “Cassations” that were played in background at formal dinners. Likewise, a youthful Beethoven composed his “Serenade” as background music or set pieces for summertime entertainments held outdoors.
The Serenade is not Beethoven’s most stirring stuff. Its six individual pieces—several of which revolve around a simple theme and variations—are neither musically profound nor intellectually challenging. On the other hand, who wants high seriousness when it comes to party music?
Besides, even garden-variety Beethoven still sounds better than your average composer’s work, particularly when performed with the light, airy touch the Aspen players applied to the score last Friday. The resulting performance was easy if longish way to discover the more personable side of a gruff, driven composer much better known for his dramatic statements.
The players followed the Beethoven with something completely different, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s 1944 Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano. Martinů is one of those interesting fairly recent composers one doesn’t hear very often, at least in this country. That’s probably because his music is generally interesting and relatively easy to grasp and listen to—virtues not much appreciated by 20th century academics who preferred to drive audiences from the premises with their atonal experimentation.
Ironically, some of Martinů’s best work was penned in the U.S. He composed this trio in this country where he’d temporarily retreated in the late innings of the Second World War. He’d experienced great success in the city of Boston in the early 1940s, introducing some of his works with the Boston Symphony and later serving as a guest faculty member at several institutions.
The trio is arranged in essentially the traditional sonata form, opening and closing with allegretto movements separated by a deeper central Adagio (slow) which begins with a long, broadly expressed piano solo before passing the development on to the flute and the cello.
The work in general, though, is brisk and catchy, easily importing a few American idioms and sounding at times like a witty Hollywood film score. The Aspen players performed the work with great feeling and sensitivity, leavened with an occasional outburst of puckish musical humor. In the process they surely made some new friends for a composer whose music really deserves to be heard with greater frequency here.
The Aspen Ensemble’s program concluded with Brahms industrial strength Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello in G minor, Op. 25 (1861). Composed in four dense, challenging movements, it’s one of Brahms’ signature pieces—particularly the finale, a breakneck Presto (very fast) well beloved by Brahms fans everywhere.
Brahms’ music—a great part of it, anyway—is devilishly difficult to perform unless one is willing to devote an inordinate amount of time toward getting it right. It’s rhythmically and harmonically dense, loaded with thick chords, and often proceeds at a ruthless pace. (Having staggered through a few of the composer’s “Intermezzi” when I was a piano student many years ago, I recall wishing I’d been born with 13 fingers, the better to play all the notes.)
The Aspen players certainly did their homework on this one, however, turning in one of the finest, most fully realized performances of this work that I can remember. Their impeccable phrasing, crisp attacks, and near-Germanic warmth passion for this music was always in evidence, as was their drive for perfection.
The highlight of the evening, of course, was that famous finale, marked “Rondo alla Zingarese,” referring to the 2/4 gypsy dance meter that drives this Presto movement relentlessly onward.
Although a German national, the composer had a lifelong passion for Hungarian gypsy music, returning to it enthusiastically again and again in many of his compositions. This final movement of this quartet is characteristic of his approach. It’s essentially a Hungarian rhapsody, a la Franz Liszt. Brahms introduces several different tunes, punctuating them with slower, more melancholy moments before dashing onto yet another frenzied dance. Everything leads up to a whirlwind coda which the players executed flawlessly, leading to a well-deserved ovation from an appreciative, near capacity audience.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars).
Next on tap for the Discovery Series—the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quartet will appear in a February 12 program highlighting modernist composers, including Paul Hindemith, Gunther Schuller, György Ligeti, and others. Performances, again, are at the Barns. For more details, including tickets and seating choices, visit the Wolf Trap website starting at this link.
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