Sunday December 4, NY (day two of this sabbatical excursion).
Today’s musical treat: Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht for String Sextet, Op. 4, and the Brahms String Quartet No. 2 in G Major, performed by musicians of the New York Philharmonic and violinist Leonidas Kavakos. at the 92nd St. YMHA (for many years an important Manhattan concert venue, for those of you who haven’t been able to spend time here). Two wonderful works, similar in some ways—Schoenberg’s musical language at this point (he was about 25) was still very influenced by Brahms.
Extraordinary playing. Kavakos, who has established a fine solo career, is an ouststanding musician. But no more than the six Philharmonic players: Sheryl Staples and Michelle Kim (violins), Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young (violas) and Carter Brey and Qiang Tu (cellos). When I was in my early teens, my father told me that many principal players of major orchestras play on the same level as string players with solo careers, but I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized he was right, and it was even later that I came to understand that some people might prefer orchestral life to that of a touring soloist (take away the ecstasy of the music making and even a great artist’s life on the road isn’t all that different of a traveling salesman). Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist, has a significant solo career himself, one he cut back on to join the orchestra. And each of the others clearly has a level of artistry that would enable them to do the work of a touring soloist, if they had the inclination and there were more opportunities for full-time soloists in today’s classical music culture.
This was everything one could want in a chamber music concert. That everyone was in total technical command of their instruments was a given, but even that in and of itself was an inspiration. There is something deeply moving to me about witnessing tremendous feats of physical discipline and control; sometimes I get tears in my eyes when someone executes perfectly what I know to be a difficult passage. I have such an appreciation for instrumental musicians that I’m affected most powerfully by them. I can find myself awe struck by a great gymnast or figure skater. Not long ago I was watching a Fred Astaire film; closely watching one number I was just blown away. How can any human being, I asked myself, have that kind of control of his body?
This sort of achievement, built on years and years of study and practice, and the efforts and support of parents and teachers (and generations of their teachers) and mentors and the support of friends and other family . . . when someone has really mastered something, it is genuinely awe inspiring.
All seven of today’s performers have done that. But of course the art of classical music performance, especially chamber music, begins once the technical skill is in place. This was genuine music making, alive and vital and imaginative. These players were really there, fully present in the music making. And it was the kind of beautifully blended, finely crafted ensemble playing that one would expect from a group that plays together regularly.
I especially appreciated the wide pallet of sound colors and the variety of vibrato. There was a time when it seemed that most New York-based string players I heard played with a consistently fast, wide, pretty-much uniform vibrato that had not much variety. One of my teachers, Bernard Greenhouse, has been on a mission his entire pedagogical career to get string players to vary the width and speed of their vibrato to achieve a wider and more effective expressive range. In both works, it was clear that the entire group was sensitive to vibrato use. Sometimes these things work themselves out nonverbally in the rehearsal process, but I would be quite surprised if vibrato use in some passages had not been thoroughly discussed.
Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist, and I have had a bit of a debate on the Internet Cello Society web forums about left-hand position in recent days. It was serendipitous to have such a timely opportunity to hear (and see) him play. We had a nice chat after the concert.