Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Avalon Quartet

In a week where much of the world was glued to their TV sets watching spectacular skaters in Vancouver, often accompanied by Russian music, Saturday night's program of quartets by the Illinois-based Avalon Quartet, in the Close Encounters with Music series at the Mahaiwe, fit right in. Two of the works on the program were by Russians, and the third was one of Beethoven's Rasumovsky set. I was not able to stay for that final piece, but the first half of the concert was a joy. CEWM Artistic director Yehuda Hanani, noted cellist and master teacher with a formidable background, illuminated the music with a pre-concert lecture filled with informative facts flavored by his dry wit.

The Prokofiev Quartet No. 2 is not as profound as his first essay in that genre, but is notable for the variety of folk themes taken from the Kabardino-Balkar region of the USSR where he was staying in 1942, having been evacuated along with other artists following the Nazi invasion of the country. The Mahaiwe is a great space for chamber music, and the Avalon players rewarded its rapt audience with a stunning performance filled with delicate instrumental colors, impeccable ensemble, and spirit. Since their formation at the Norfolk Festival in 1995, they have joined the short list of the finest quartets of their generation. It will be interesting to compare the sound of this reading with their return visit to Music Mountain on June 20.

Hanani then played musical chairs with the second violinist, for a quartet by Anton Arensky written with two cellos instead of the typical two violins. The consequently darker sound was perfect for the brooding Russian Orthodox themes that weave in and out of the outer movements. In between them come a famous set of variations on a Tchaikovsky children's song that gave the musicians a chance to do their equivalent of triple loops, quadruple axels, and of course, Russian splits.

The next concert in the Close Encounters series on Sat. March 20 at 6 p.m., features Yehuda Hanani joined by violinist Cordelia Hagmann and pianist James Tocco in an an all-Bach pre-birthday celebration that includes many transcriptions from the Romantic era. Tickets $35/$10 students at or at the Mahaiwe.

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