May 14, 2007 in City

String quartet offers a fine season finale

Travis Rivers Correspondent

The Spokane String Quartet celebrated Mother’s Day with the return of an almost-native Spokanite, violist Minor Wetzel. He was born in Almira. But that is close enough to celebrate a homecoming. Wetzel was joined by his violinist wife, Stacy, Spokane Symphony pianist Linda Siverts and members of the quartet in a concert that was warm, witty and wonderfully played.

Both the visiting Wetzels are members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the program they brought with them featured unfamiliar and highly interesting music.

Minor Wetzel opened with Three Pieces for Viola and Piano Trio by one of his teachers, Paul Coletti. The assisting performers, Stacy Wetzel, Siverts, and cellist Helen Byrne, seemed to be having more fun than should be allowed in a piece titled “Circus.” The tone was set by an almost chaotically busy evocation of the piece’s title with sliding squeals, oddly accented jazzy patterns, and some string slapping on the cello and ragtimey piano work near the end.

The third piece was “Hora Romanesca,” which showed, Wetzel said, just how close Gypsy fiddling is to American country fiddling. It began with some tentative, painfully scratchy “morning after” warm-ups and turned to a progressively flashy display of flying fingers and bows.

My favorite, though, was the middle movement “From My Heart,” an unabashedly sentimental tribute to the composer’s father. It was an old-fashioned pop love song that suggested the work of the Crosby Theater’s namesake and had embedded lyrics from some of Colletti’s father’s favorite melodies.

The Wetzels follow with Johan Halvorsen’s virtuoso takeoff for violin and viola of the simple Sarabande from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7. It starts innocently enough, but turns out to sound like Handel meets Paganini with the showy vocabulary of 19th-century string playing technique.

After intermission, the mood turned more serious – well, sometimes more serious – with Anton Bruckner’s Quintet in F major. It is the only full-scale chamber work by a composer known as a symphonist and writer of big church music.

What a revelation! Oh, it’s long all right, nearly 45 minutes. But it begins with a warm sound of the five instruments playing low in their registers, then spins out with sections that suggest folk songs, peasant dancing and bird calls. Stacy Wetzel introduced the piece by describing Bruckner’s appearance and personality: He was born in an Upper Austrian village and remained a peasant villager even when he became a famous organist and conservatory professor in Vienna.

The out of doors and the easygoing camaraderie of village tavern are put aside only by the religious calm of the Adagio third movement. Here the prayerful melody first heard from Stacy Wetzel’s first violin is passed around eventually to Tana Bland’s second violin, the violas of Minor Wetzel and Jeannette Wee-Yang, and the cello of Helen Byrne.

Many of the Brucknerian trademarks are heard in the quintet – melodies that repeat starting a step higher or lower, complex interlacing of melodies creating dense textures, and the tension of a single sustained note in the bass against the activity of multiple melodies in the upper parts. And don’t forget those sudden dramatic pauses. But Bruckner’s Quintet proved to be genuine chamber music, not just a Bruckner symphony or a Mass in a five-instrument disguise.

Sunday’s concert made an excellent finale to the Spokane String Quartet’s season. And the unusual repertoire was as fresh as spring.

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