Music in the Great Hall opens 39th season with French flourish

Here is the text of an online article in the Baltimore Sun written by music critic Tim Smith:

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Virginia Reinecke, artistic director emerita of Music in the Great Hall, couldn’t make it to the opening of the organization’s 39th season Sunday afternoon;  the indefatigable nonagenarian keyboard artist is recuperating from shoulder replacement surgery (I think of her as the Bionic Pianist). But she would have had a ball.

To start, she would have loved the good turnout at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church; just as Virginia predicted, current artistic director Lura Johnson has lit a fresh fire under the concert series. The imaginative programming would likewise had pleased Virginia, the quality of the music-making even more.

The concert centered around the Bryant Park Quartet, a New York-based, six-year-old ensemble that features as first violinist Baltimore native Anna Elashvili, an alumna of Peabody Prep and the Baltimore School for the Arts.

In its local debut (it will be back for Sundays at Three in Columbia in February, Community Concerts at Second in May), the quartet came up with a clever balancing act.

The concert opened with two groups of three — three vocal pieces by Renaissance giant Josquin des Prez that turned out to be well-suited to adaptation; and the Three Pieces for String Quartet from 1914 by Stravinsky.

The juxtaposition of Josquin’s harmonies and those of Stravinsky proved fascinating; the two sound-worlds, ages apart, somehow emerged as kindred spirits. The Bryant Park players drew out the piquant spice in both sets of works. The third of the Stravinsky’s pieces, with its evocation of chant (the “Dies Irae” theme seems to poke through slyly), received an especially effective account.

The big-ticket items on the program formed another pair — two exquisite masterworks from early 1890s French repertoire: Debussy’s well-known String Quartet; and a big, infrequently performed score by his friend and supporter, Chausson, the Concert for violin, piano and string quartet.

(By the way, it’s a common practice on these shores to call the Chausson score a concerto — I’ve made that slip quite often myself — but Chausson chose “concert,” conjuring up the baroque term for pieces with contrasting groups of instruments.)

As with the Josquin/Stravinksy combo, it was rewarding to hear these two compositions in proximity. Chausson’s musical language is steeped in the chromaticism of Franck, with a little Wagner on the side. Debussy carved out a different harmonic path entirely, but held onto some of the old forms as he did so. Chausson respected the younger composer’s choices; Debussy returned that respect.

The Bryant Park group, well matched in tone and technique, delivered a vibrant performance of the Debussy quartet, achieving an especially refined level of phrasing in the closing minutes of the Andantino.

The players’ sense of rhythmic and expressive vitality also served them well in the Chausson work, ensuring that they never slipped into a mere supporting role. The spotlighted parts were handled with considerable flair by BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney and Johnson at the piano.

If Carney sounded a little unsettled at the start, the violinist’s tone soon warmed to its familiar purr. His phrasing had terrific sweep in the outer movements and a golden glow for the richly lyrical ones in between. Johnson summoned impressive bravura as needed — Chausson demands a lot of it — and balanced that with considerable nuance.

The six musicians maintained tight rapport as they tapped into the Concert’s Brahmsian heat and French elegance. In the Grave movement, they also achieved a remarkable richness of expression that cast quite a spell.

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