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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Concert Review: The Power of the Collective

The Manhattan Chamber Players' Holiday Concert.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Members of the Manhattan Chamber Players (with artistic director Luke Fleming
in the red tie) looking for a place to play. Photo by Sophie Zhai © 2015 Manhattan Chamber Players.

The arrival of a new chamber music ensemble in New York is an occasion for celebration, for virtuosity and for its members to show the concert-going music-loving public what they can do. That opportunity was presented on Tuesday night when the Manhattan Chamber Players gave their second concert...ever in the Recital Hall at Baruch College. (Their first was last week at Le Poisson Rouge.) A collective that formed earlier this year, the MCP is formed from members of other still extant ensembles: a large circle of friends and colleagues who convene for the purposes of playing pure music.




This was a long but fruitful evening, featuring four new works and selected movements from pieces by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak, Piazzolla and Shostakovich. The idea, artistic director and violist Luke Fleming explained, was to present as many combinations of players as possible, using the 17 members of the MCP who would be in town for this performance. The works were divided into pieces from the early catalogues of these composers, contrasted with chamber music from their maturity.

The program opened with the Allegro moderato from Mendelssohn's Octet, a work the composer wrote when he was just 16. Mendelssohn was an extraordinary child prodigy, and this Allegro shows the work of a fully formed musical genius. It was followed by the Allegro from Brahms' passionate Piano Trio in B and Dvorak (a composer who remains a personal favorite of Mr. Fleming's) two movements from his early String Sextet.

Between movements and seating changes, Mr. Fleming acted as emcee even as his fellow players worked as impromptu stage hands. He introduced the next piece: Shadows Lengthen by contemporary composer (and ensemble member) Chris Rogerson with particular pride. He had good reason. The piece slowly from a keening in the strings to a stirring, chromatic climax, shifting and increasing in dynamic in an upwelling and outpouring of genuine grief. This was powerful stuff, and was followed by the explosive energy of two Shostakovich pieces, themselves dripping with that composer's acid wit.

Shostakovich opened the second half, returning with works written as the Soviet composer became more and more embittered with the government that he served. He expressed that bitterness in these Waltzes from his Three Duets: sardonic works that parodied the sound of Ye Olde Vienna by contrasting lurching triple meter pieces with furious Russian dances. The gorgeous slow movement from Mendelssohn's String Quintet followed, showing that composer's mastery of orchestration even when using only five instruments.

The evening's guest soloist then arrived. J.P. Jofre plays the bandoneon, a German-designed concertina that has push-buttons on both ends and a tremendous musical range, with throaty bass notes and a high treble available at just a push. Supported by string players, he opened his miniature set with Fear, a tango from his countryman Astor Piazzolla, squeezing an astonishing range of sounds from the box in his hands. This was followed by two works penned by Mr. Jofre: Sweet Dreams and Hard Tango. The first work was lyrical, the second rhythmically compelling, drawing from the composer's experience as a drummer.

The last premiere on the program was by Ensemble member Vivian Fung. Sketch pitted the solo cello of Andrew Janss against electronic tones, loops and whooshes of sound, controlled by a stage left iPad. This fascinating experimental work showed the possibilities on the electronic frontier as the digitally generated sounds supported the cello but did not overwhelm it. More traditional was the satisfying one-two punch of the Andante from Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 3 and the gleeful finale of the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.