The American Symphony Orchestra deserve immense credit for their courage in taking a frontline role in bringing live music back to New York at such a perilous historical moment. Likewise, the programmers at Bryant Park deserve just as much of a shout for giving musicians a space to perform when indoor spots have been ruled off-limits by Il Duce up in Albany. Concert-starved audiences whose daytime hours are free can catch an ongoing series of solo performances on the park’s electric piano at half past noon on frequent weekdays.
Monday night’s performance featured a string quartet of violinists Cyrus Beroukhim andRichard Rood, violist William Frampton and cellist Alberto Parrini playing a fascinating and entertaining mix of obscure and standard repertoire. Crowds have become immune to rote homilies like “You’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home with us.” But when Frampton unselfconsciously gushed about how much of a pleasure it was to finally be able to play concerts again, there was no doubting his sincerity.
With full-on vibrato, they opened with an unabashedly Romantic rendition of Nino Rota’s Love Theme from the film Romeo and Juliet, and brought the concert full circle with the encore, Gabriel’s Oboe, by Ennio Morricone. In between, they confidently and vividly tackled three completely different but equally engaging pieces.
The first was Nino Rota’s lone string quartet, in three movements – considering the demands on his creativity as a film composer, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a fourth. From the initial movement’s soaring, lively, anthemic opening-credits energy, the quartet turned in a robust, dynamic interpretation – more than a little cabin fever may have been exorcised at this show. The contrasts between the meticulously calm, baroque-tinged rondo and rise to a bracingly insistent minor-key coda in the second movement were striking, as the visceral triumph of the conclusion.
The group worked a spring-loaded, dynamically-charged intensity in the opening and closing movements of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, its centerpiece being an even more dynamic, gossamer interpretation of the iconic Appassionate For Strings. Hearing that often whispery, achingly crescendoing movement – often played as a stand-alone piece – in the context of a greater whole was revelatory, especially when the quartet threw caution to the wind and reveled in the rise to the payoff at the end.
George Walker’s 1946 String Quartet No. 1 was the most technically challenging, thorniest work on the bill, but also the most fascinating. Much more rhythmic, bustling with constantly changing counterpoint, it’s a crazy quilt of short, incisive, pervasively restless phrases, like a Bartok Jr. Never having heard the piece before, the simmering, nocturnal second movement came as a surprise – as did the shivery intensity of the reprise of the opening theme in the movement afterward. The dichotomy between bristling energy and plaintiveness was evoked even more strongly in the rather brief coda.
You can go on youtube anytime you want and look up every composer who ever wrote a note, but nothing compares to new discoveries brought to life before your eyes by a group who seem to be enjoying that every bit as much.
The next live performance at Bryant Park is a solo piano gig tomorrow, Sept 25 at half past noon by Yuko Aikawa.