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Revisiting an Iconic Moment in the Creepy Classical Canon

Over the course of several years of annual, October-long Halloween celebrations here, you would think that at some point, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition would have made an appearance. No dice. The Chelsea Symphony‘s performance of that staple of the horror-classical canon got a big thumbs-up here...but that was in January of 2016.

Fast forward to 2021: the Chelsea Symphony’s beloved executive director has moved on and the group are as imperiled as any other performing arts organization outside the free world. But there is a very straightforward, energetic 2018 live recording at Spotify by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (both featured here earlier this month) which has plenty of creepy moments.

For those unfamiliar with the suite, the composer wrote it as a requiem for his painter friend Victor Hartmann, inspired by a posthumous retrospective of his work. It’s a wildly successful attempt to bring those paintings to life within the context of a leisurely, pensive gallery tour. In reality, Moussorgsky’s memory of several of the pictures on display was either fuzzy, or he deliberately gave them a much creepier interpretation. The original suite is for solo piano; Maurice Ravel orchestrated it in 1922. That’s what the orchestra are working with here.

The creepiness doesn’t start immediately, Noseda leading the listener into the gallery via a firmly reverential stroll. Ravel’s genius is in highlighting every available bit of phantasmagoria. Case in point: the twinkling second segment, The Gnome, which Noseda picks up boisterously at the end.

Fueled by the low brass and deliciously fluttery, ghostly strings, this broodingly waltzing take of The Old Castle is a keeper for anybody’s Halloween party playlist. Those cattle in the pasture? Definitely up to no good, beneath an increasingly stormy sky.

The Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks is on the goofy, cartoonish side of Halloween music. But Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the two Jews out for a Shabbat stroll, are definitely keeping an eye out for trouble. Interestingly, Noseda’s interpretation of the catacomb scene is much louder and emphatic – and less haunting – than other conductors usually portray it. Maybe that choice was to set up the distant ominousness of the land of the dead – and then a rise to the bellicose menace of Baba Yaga’s Hut afterward.

The rest of the suite is relatively more lighthearted: proto-ragtime Tuileries, an anxious Limoges market scene and a dynamically rich, stately portrait of the (completely fictitious) Great Gate of Kiev.

This album opens with a similarly dynamic, persistently restless concert recording of Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Although it has plenty of sturm und drang, characterizing it as Halloween music would be a stretch. The fateful angst and moody balletesque variations of the first movement, moments of gorgeous bittersweetness and torment of the second, unexpectedly carnivalesque touches in the third and boisterous swirl in the conclusion all testify to how sensitively Noseda and the orchestra approach it.

An Iconic Horror Film For the Ears

What better to kick off this year’s annual October-long Halloween celebration of dark music than one of the alltime great horror movies for the ears? Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1936, when he first earned the wrath of Josef Stalin for daring to create interesting and relevant music that didn’t glorify the genocidal Soviet regime.

Sound familiar?

Censorship and totalitarianism existed long before the lockdown, the needle of death, Facebook and Google. The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra was pressured not to premiere the symphony, which wouldn’t see the light of day until 1961. The composer reputedly called it his favorite.

As political satire, it’s one of the most withering pieces of music ever written. It’s a mashup of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Schoenberg, but more venomously political than anything any of those composers ever wrote. There’s a spellbinding live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, streaming at Spotify, that you should hear if you can handle savagely troubled music right now.

This particular album is taken from two concerts at the Barbican in November 2018. Noseda’s dynamics are vast and dramatic to the extreme, as they should be. Whether explosive, or shuddering with horror, or ruthlessly parodying Stalin’s campy pageantry, the orchestra are a force of nature.

The first movement comes in with a shriek, a pulsing post-Sacre du Printemps dance of death and all kinds of foreshadowing of how Shostakovich would expand on this kind of phantasmagoria, far more politically. All the strongman themes in Shostakovich’s symphonies, from the third on, are phony: he never lets a tyrant, whether Stalin or Krushchev, off the hook.

Coy cartoons suddenly appear livesize and lethal. This is a cautionary tale, the composer telling us not to take our eye off the ball, or else. A rite of the dead of winter, intertwined with terrified individual voices, rises to a vicious crescendo. The first of many references to Anitra’s Dance, the Grieg theme, appears. Concertmaster Roman Sinovic and bassoonist Rachel Gough become plaintive and persistent witnesses to history.

Movement two is nothing less than an indictment, a sometimes ghostly, pervasively anxious waltz wafting in and out, the ruthlessness of the regime baring its fangs to a terrorized citizenry. The concluding third movement begins too casual to be true, as the orchestra calmly allude to another macabre Russian classic, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The chase scene early on doesn’t have quite the horror of the KGB pursuit theme in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, but it’s close.

The ensemble offer a twisted parody of a Germanic minuet as a spitball at the entitled Russian collaborator classes, Noseda getting maximum cynical gossipy fervor out of the strings. Stormtroopers gather and wreak havoc, the orchestra building a devastatingly phantasmagorical parody of Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Clashes of ideologies, musical and otherwise, grow more combatively surreal. The seemingly ineluctable, gruesome march out doesn’t get to fade down without a series of accusatory ghosts.

As with all of Shostakovich, there are innumerable other details that could take up ten more pages to chronicle: buckle up for this carnival of dead souls. The London Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing series of live albums comprise some incredible performances and this might be the very best of recent years.

A Neglected Russian Romantic Orchestral Treasure From Pianist Irena Portenko

While the heroes of last year’s lockdown were working long hours at hospitals where staff had been cut by fifty percent in order to engineer the illusion of a crisis, there was a much humbler kind of triage going on at this blog: sorting out the equally imperiled digital part of a constantly growing archive. A brief listen revealed that one album which had slipped through the cracks and didn’t deserve that fate was pianist Irena Portenko‘s 2016 performance of Prokofiev and Tschaikovsky concertos with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko. The recording quality of the album, Versus – streaming at Spotify – is very old-world: for a digital production, the sound is very contiguous, in the spirit of a vinyl record. This is the kind of album that you can listen to over and over again and discover something new every time.

The balmy, Debussyesque introduction to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 offers no clue where this beast is going to go, Portenko’s emphatic upward cascades against increasing lushness punctuated by an anxious, searching flute. But Prokofiev remains one of the kings of phantasmagoria, and Portenko and the ensemble quickly sink their fangs into a marionettish strut and then a distantly macabre haze before bringing back the Asian diatonics.

That’s just the first half of the first movement. The way she hangs back and lets the increasing unease speak for itself pays off mightily when she slams into the big, grim crescendo afterward, the orchestra circling like a hungry condor. The gusty, stricken second movement is over in a flash; the third, a processional written as a requiem for a friend of the composer who killed himself, is far more sinister in places. The flute and staccato strings in tandem with the piano are creepy to the extreme. Again, the restraint of both soloist and orchestra enhance the mysterious intensity of the concluding movement, Portenko’s sabretoothed ripples and icepick chords finally gaining traction as the orchestra linger and pulse behind her.

They shift gears for Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the most ravishingly beautiful (curmudgeons might say treacly) pieces of classical music ever written. It’s been ripped off by thousands of pop songwriters over the decades. Portenko doesn’t let it go there, with a clenched-teeth attack that raises the drama factor several times over, matched by Sirenko’s lavish touch in front of the orchestra. Yet there’s great subtlety from the ensemble: a bass breaks the surface, then flourishes from the reeds, matched by Portenko’s coy bit of a fugue in the first movement. Her gritty, intricate proto boogie-woogie in the movement’s third part screams out for the repeat button.

The second movement is balletesque yet replete with longing, Portenko rising to the challenge of the composer’s machinegunning rivulets. Starry, starry night! The third movement is where the Ukrainian bandura melody that Tschaikovsky polishes up and rips off throughout this piece really gets a workout: folk-rock, 19th century style. There are passages here that seem breathtakingly fast, compared to other orchestras’ interpretations: they seem to want everybody to hang on and enjoy the ride, up to the warmly familiar coda.

Playful, Inventive, Outside-the-Box Romany-Inspired Jazz and Reinvented Classical Themes

Violinist Gabe Terracciano‘s album Three Part Invention – streaming at Bandcamp – is a lot of fun, with very inventive arrangements and ideas springboarding off a familiar three-piece Romany jazz setup: guitar, violin and bass. Guitarist Josh Dunn has his Django Reinhardt parts down cold but also gets to indulge in some nimble classical guitar and other styles while bassist Ian Hutchison holds the center, even when he’s in rapidfire mode.

Throughout the record, there are some welcome and unexpected interludes for solo bass, particularly in Dance for Jimmy a bluesy strut with less obvious Romany jazz influence and spare, surrealistically descending solos from guitar and violin

The most obvious Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli influence is in the trio’s take of Crazy Rhythm. Violin and guitar double each other in the undulating but motoring Fleche D’Or, with some breathtakingly shivery violin work from Terracciano.

The piece de resistance here is the austerely airy, lingering, tantalizingly brief arrangement of Erik Satie’s iconically haunting Gymnopedie No. 3. They rename the famous baroque tune Invention No. 4 as “Beautiful Love,” moving from a rapid stroll to fugal exchanges between guitar and violin, Terracciano taking Bach to Belleville.

A lot of people have taken Beethoven’s Pathetique to new places; this one is a mashup of the baroque with distant Celtic tinges.

Terracciano switches to viola for a stark, spacious take of Alex North’s love theme from the 1960 movie Spartacus, leaving behind waltzing nostalgia for more incisive terrain and an all-too-brief, poignantly dancing bass-guitar interlude. And Sweet Chorus comes across as an emphatic, strolling take of Sweet Sue with biting violin and expansively chordal guitar.

Tschaikovsky for a Winter Afternoon

If you’re considering a splurge on the post-Thanksgiving, 2 PM Nov 30 matinee performance of Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 by the NY Philharmonic, it’s probably a good idea. Music Director Jaap Van Zweden is back, and he and the orchestra excel with Rachmaninoff, so this also could be sublime. Tix are pricy: $34 will get you in. The Mozart Wind Serenade in E flat might seem like an odd piece to start the show, but Van Zweden has a knack for making sense of seemingly bizarre segues.

And if you’re looking for a way to warm up for the concert, there’s an excellent, characteristically epic new recording of Tschaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 just out from the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev and streaming at Spotify. Make no mistake about it, this is heavy music: Swan Lake it is not, although it also isn’t completely dark.

The delicately brooding bassoon-and-strings lament that bookends the first movement’s stern, angst-fueled waltz and blustery, swirling crescendos will be a recurrent trope. Likewise, Gergiev and the ensemble stay low to the ground in the grimly murky atmospherics that wind up the first movement, and the melancholy horn melody that opens the second. Mournful bassoon and clarinet eventually rise warily, but not that far. When the plucky basses introduce a secondary theme, that’s a big message, foreshadowing a sudden jolt from nocturnal contentment to sheer horror.

The lickety-split counterpoint of the third movement is downright furtive, and closure doesn’t quite happen with the relative calm of the waltz afterward. For that we have to wait til the triumphant lustre and unexpected, jovial majesty of the finale. And ultimately, it’s too pat: happiness just busting through the clouds without the slightest warning?

So the album’s piece de resistance is the gloomy cumulo-nimbus Russian gothic Symphony No. 4, the opening track. The obvious model is Beethoven’s Fifth, and there are riffs everywhere that Rachmaninoff nicked and took to their logical conclusions with his Second Symphony. The angst police show up with a fanfare; strings sweep down like a flock of vultures, relentlessly; that bassoon and clarinet again!

Momentary cheer gets strutted off to trial or shadowed by a stalker or three. Desolation on some barren steppe gets maximum grandeur. What another orchestra might do as a ballet all the way through, this group introduce as phantasmagoria. Gergiev and the orchestra finally reach Eldorado in the rapidfire overture of the finale, filling the sonic picture, floor to ceiling: they get this troubled masterpiece.

A Far Cry Revel in the Rich Sonics of This Year’s Indoor Naumburg Concerts at Temple Emanu-El

After innumerable years in Central Park, the annual summer Naumburg free concert series has moved indoors to Temple Emanu-El while their namesake bandshell is finally renovated. Evertbody who plays this year’s inaugural series of indoor shows seems to agree that the space is as sonically sublime as it is architecturally celestial. That feeling was echoed, literally, by several members of string orchestra A Far Cry, who played the most recent concert there last week.

Over the years, the programming has featured a rotating cast of ensembles; this was the Boston-based group’s second appearance. They opened elegantly with Georg Muffat’s 1701 tour of baroque European dances, the Concerto Grosso No. 12; the party really started with the group’s arrangement of Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte. A clever series of variations on cell-like phrases, the orchestra parsed its tricky syncopation, playful stops-and-starts and the sudden unease of a swooping series of intertwining microtonal phrases with a lithe, graceful aplomb.

Composer Lembit Beecher introduced the Manhattan premiere of his suite Conference of the Birds as an update on an ancient Persian fable about a flock in search of a leader. It seemed to be more of a commentary on how groups all too often leave the outliers behind, than a parable on the virtues of democracy. In the high-ceilinged space, a troubled, muted mass flutter midway through the piece really packed a punch as the echoes began to pulse. Beecher’s meticulous web shifted from delicate, searching birdsong figures, to tense swells that never quite soared carefree. It brought to mind Kayhan Kalhor’s even more anthemic portrait, Ascending Bird.

Likewise, the icing on this sonic cake, Tschaikovsky’s Serenade in C had more of the precision and determined focus of a string quartet than fullscale orchestral grandeur. The group zeroed in on the inner architecture of one of the most iconic works in the High Romantic repertoire, a guided tour of how much fun the composer must have had writing it.

The Naumburg concerts continue at Temple Emanu-El – on Fifth Ave. just north of 65th Street – on July 30 at 7 PM with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s playing works by Anna Clyne, Florence Pryce, Samuel Barber and others. It’s a big space, with more seats than you typically find outside in the park, but getting there early is still a good idea.

Effortless Pivoting and Marathon Endurance From the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra

Last night at Lincoln Center, the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra’s performance of Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake began with the dancers hidden behind a shimmery curtain, artfully foreshadowing a narrative whose protagonist finally plunges in, never to surface again. After three marathon hours onstage, when the orchestra finally reached the long sequence of closing themes, conductor Balazs Kocsar opted for elegance over reckless abandon. It’s here that the composer’s command of seemingly every European folk dance that existed in the late 19th century is most stunning. Passages with machinegunning Serbian-inflected brass interlude, a tersely whirling minor-key reel and frequent interludes that bristled with Romany chromatics were seamless despite the disparity of the themes. Musically, that was the night’s big takeaway.

Getting to that point seemed vastly easier than it was. Kocsar had broken a sweat before the first act ended, but his endurance matched the stamina of the dancers and musicians. Tatiana Melnik channeled as much scheming menace as indomitable cheer in her herculean dual role as Odette the good girl and her shadow Odile. Gergely Leblanc brought a practically ghostly, flitting athleticism to his role as protagonist Siegfried. When the crowds of dancers hit the stage, they matched that precision. The stage set – by Toer van Schayk, who also choreographed and designed the costumes – provided an aptly bucolic backdrop for the story’s many subplots.

Whether playing the role of the czar’s personal band, a boisterous village pickup group, a boisterous village itself, or simply purveyors of vast, enveloping nocturnes, the orchestra maintained a kaleidoscopic tirelessness. The intricate counterpoint between strings and reeds in the opening court sequence, rising from subtle wariness to fullscale apprehension, was one of the night’s high points.

The lake scene with the famous “Siegfried idyll”  was the orchestra’s most opulent moment, building through distantly glimmering tableaux, sinister phantasmagoria and contrasting calm, on the lavish wings of the strings. Throughout the night, Kocsar’s vigorous rhythms were unwavering, meeting every challenge as it arose, only to make way for a new interlude. It’s no wonder this orchestra are sought after for so many other performances outside the opera world.

Saluting One of New York’s Great Music Advocacy Organizations at Lincoln Center Last Night

Every generation tends to view successive ones as being more and more effete. That preconception becomes all the harder to argue with in an age where daily life for so much of the population is becoming more and more virtual and less and less real. Why drag yourself to Manhattan at rush hour to immerse yourself in a sublime and intimate performance when you could get a virtual equivalent on Facebook Live? 

So to see a packed house for the annual Young Concert Artists gala at  Alice Tully Hall last night was a shot of serious optimism. Does the continued success of an organization whose raison d’etre is to champion and springboard the careers of young classical musicians portend a sea change, maybe? A slow tidal shift? Or does that simply reaffirm the eternal appeal of great art? All of the above, maybe?

The concert itself was great fun, a display of ferocious chops, and intuition, and joie de vivre, played to an audience reflecting the relative youth of most of the performers. The prospect of being able to see pianists Lise de la Salle amd Anne-Marie McDermott. violinists Ani Kafavian and Juliette Kang, bassist Xavier Foley. harpist Emmanuel Ceysson and the Zora String Quartet alongside veteran flutist Paula Robison and cello icon Fred Sherry – just to name a handful of the 23 former and current YCA roster members – together onstage is less likely than it might seem. Each has a busy solo, orchestral and chamber music career.

If pageantry could be genunely profound, it would be the version of Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings played by YCA’s conductorless fifteen-piece all-star ensemble. With unbridled, fluttery joy balanced by more direct intonation and clear, uncluttered dynamic shifts, the group reveled in its balletesque riffs, drawing a straight line back to Mozart.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, backed by McDermott and the Zora String Quartet, followed a similarly straightforward trajectory from plaintiveness to a blaze of five-alarm drama in Ernest Chausson’s Chanson Perpetuelle. That vigorous sensibility took a turn in a more upbeat, triumphantly lilting direction with Ravel’s Introduction and  Allegro, played by a septet including Sherry, Kang, Robinson and  Ceysson along with violinist Paul Huang, violist Toby Appel and clarinetist Narek Arutyunian.

The program closed with a mashup of Scott Joplin, Liszt and John Philip Sousa arranged for piano eight hands, performed by de la Salle and McDermott with Gleb Ivanov and Yun-Chin Zhou. As completely over-the-top as the concept was, careening from one idiom to another with zero regard for segues, there’s no denying how much fun the four musicians were having while simply trying to maintain a semblance of tightness. Which testifies to the kind of outside-the-box thinking that might or might not be putting more and more young people in the seats. That question continues to bedevil everyone in the concert business these days – and it’s inspiring to see YCA coming up with some answers that are obviously working.

The Momenta Quartet’s Marathon Week Just Won’t Stop

If you’re regretting that you missed the Momenta Quartet’s marathon four-day festival that wound up last night, wait – there’s more! The indomitable string quartet are playing an all-Ursula Mamlok program to accompany Miro Magloire’s New Chamber Ballet performing Stray Bird, a tribute to the pioneering 20th century composer, tonight, Oct 5 and tomorrow night, Oct 6 at 7 PM. It’s happening at the German Academy New York, 1014 5th Ave. (between 82nd & 83rd Sts), and it’s free; an rsvp would be a good idea.

This year’s third annual Momenta Festival started on Sunday night at a classy Lower East Side black-box theatre and wound up in a dingy old church on the Upper West. Consider: doesn’t that mirror the career trajectory of how many thousand acts to play this city? Seriously, though, last night’s program might have been the most electrifying of all four nights (this blog was AWOL for the first one).

If you’re new to this page, each member of the quartet programs a night of music for the festival. The finale fell to violinist Alex Shiozaki to sort out, and he packed it with three acerbic, often chilling microtonal works and a favorite from the early third-stream canon. The theme (these are all theme nights) was the creation of the world, but destruction also played a part, to the point of being the night’s riveting centerpiece and arguable high point of the entire festival. 

The quartet celebrated the work of Danish composer Per Norgard last year; this performance revisited that otherworldly intensity, with a dynamic, white-knuckle version of his World War I-themed String Quartet No. 8. Awash in microtones, halftones and pretty much anything but the western scale, it’s a showstopper, and the group negotiated its barbwire thicket of harmonics, glissandos, eerie oscillations and brooding, sometimes macabre tonalities with a matter-of-factness that made it look easy.

Cellist Michael Haas’ coolly precise pizzicato contrasted with starkness, violist Stephanie Griffin echoing that dynamic while first violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron sailed and dove alongside Shiozaki through the similarly edgy leaps and steady pulse of another microtonal work, Hiroya Miura’s Singularity. Then to open the second half, Shiozaki played Joao Pedro Oliviera’s similar Magma, interspersed with electronics (mostly echo and reverb effects) that didn’t get in the way but were ultimately pretty superfluous. In fact, leaving Shiozaki alone with its big cadenzas punctuated by plenty of space would have ramped up the suspense. It was akin to a Berio Sequenza distilled to its basic hooks.

Joined by Shiozaki’s wife, pianist Nana Shi, the group closed with a jaunty take of Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, a counterpart to Gershwin with its juxtaposition of late Romantic and ragtime tunesmithing. Milhaud mentored Dave Brubeck, so it was no wonder this brought to mind the jazz piano titan’s later, larger-ensemble works. There’s a sudden point about three quarters of the way through where the strings all of a sudden go off the rails together into a whirl of trouble, and the group didn’t miss a beat. In its own way, that strange and rather assaultive interlude was as radical and defiantly thrilling as anything else on the bill.

This Year’s Momenta Festival, Installment Three: Fun Night!

Even by the rigorous standards of the string quartet world, the Momenta Quartet have to assimilate an enormous amount of material for their annual Manhattan festival. Never mind the kind of stylistic leaps and bounds that would drive most other groups to distraction. This year’s festivities conclude tonight with a free concert at 7 at West Park Church at 86th and Amsterdam put together by violinist Alex Shiozaki. The centerpiece is Per Norgard’s mesmerizingly dark String Quartet No. 8, and reportedly there will be free beer. But the music will be better than the beer. What’s better than free beer? Now you know.

Each member of this irrepressible quartet programs a single festival evening. Violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron was in charge of night one, which was reputedly challenging and entertaining – this blog wasn’t there. Night two, assembled by violist Stephanie Griffin, was harrowingly intense and had enormous political relevance. Last night’s bill at Columbia’s Italian Academy auditorium, devised by celist Michael Haas, was the fun night – although the fun promises to continue tonight as well.

Last night’s theme was a tourists-eye view of Italy. Haas took that idea from the evening’s one world premiere, Claude Baker’s absolutely delightful Years of Pilgrimage: Italy. Baker found his inspiration in Italian-themed works by Liszt, Berlioz and Tschaikovsky, and there were jarring episodes interpolating snippets of some of those themes throughout an otherwise distinctively 21st century work. It wasn’t the easiest, segue-wise, but it was riotously funny. Otherwise, the piece didn’t seem to have much to do with Italy, from austere, minimalist insistence, to all sorts of allusive, enigmatic ripples and rises, a daunting and uneasily captivating microtonal interlude, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek glissandos and other only slightly less ostentatious uses of extended technique. The group had a great time with it: every string quartet ought to play it.

The party ended on a high note with Tschaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the quartet bolstered by their former teachers Samuel Rhodes and Marcy Rosen on second viola and cello, respectively. It was an unabashedly joyous, conversational performance: to the extent that this music can swing, the group swung it, through beery, punchy Beethovenesque riffage bookended by familiar Russian gloom.

It was as if Tschaikovsky was reassuring himself that it was ok to cut loose and have some fun. And did he ever. That buffoonish brass fanfare midway through, transposed for strings – whose doublestops and rat-a-tat phrasing are brutally tough to play, by the way? Check. That ridiculous faux-tarantella at the end? Doublecheck. Otherwise, the group reveled in nifty exchanges of voices as the mood shifted back and forth.

They’d opened with Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, which was more of a vehicle for individual members’ technical skill than anything else. Gendron spun silky filigrees while Haas and Shiozaki  provided elegant, precisely pulsing pizzicato alongside Griffin’s plaintive resonance. But ultimately, the piece – a late work based on Britten’s 1973 opera Death in Venice – didn’t really go anywhere. Obviously, the group can’t be faulted for the composer electing for a “this is what I look like when I’m sad” pose over genuine empathy. That the opera is based on the Thomas Mann novel explains a lot.