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Concert review: In ‘re-imagined’ festival, musical magic can be found everywhere.

The Ying String Quartet performed Friday at Hamilton Studios as part of the Northwest BachFest. (Courtesy)
The Ying String Quartet performed Friday at Hamilton Studios as part of the Northwest BachFest. (Courtesy)

In the current season of the Northwest BachFest, artistic director Zuill Bailey has made clear his intention to “re-imagine” (a favorite term of his) settled assumptions we might have about concert music, where and how it should be performed, and who should perform it.

After traveling from Barrister Winery to River Park Square, the festival popped up at the Hamilton Studio, itself a re-imagined 1928 school building in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood. Performing were the Ying Quartet, joined again by Bailey, this time as soloist in a striking arrangement, or re-imagining, of Robert Schumann’s beloved Concerto for Cello Op. 129, in which the orchestral parts are artfully assigned to the string quartet.

It was Bailey who first proposed the arrangement, based on documentary evidence that Schumann had conceived the piece as a string quintet, and on his own feeling that the beauties of the solo part were hampered by the composer’s unsuccessful attempt at marrying it with a symphony orchestra. The performance on Friday immediately proved the value of the arrangement, as problems of balance and continuity that plague the concerto vanished, while both the tenderness and vigor of Schumann’s ideas were allowed to sing out clearly.

In particular, the Romantic lyricism of the second movement could fall, as it should, like an intimate whisper in the ear of the audience, thanks to the hushed intensity of Bailey’s playing. The range of color and expression he commands in the quietest passages is a continual source of wonder. If you have not heard Bailey in live performance, you have not experienced all that the cello is capable of.

To hear just how much a solo violin is capable of, lovers of music have been turning for almost 300 years to the six Sonatas and Partitas for violin by J.S. Bach. No more moving example of the brilliance and humanity of Bach’s writing could be hoped for than the performance we heard of the Sonata No. 1 in G minor by Robin Scott, the first violin of the Ying Quartet. There was brilliance, for example, in his handling of Bach’s setting of four distinct voices for a single instrument in the fugal second movement. One sat in wonder as one entry followed another, each with its own distinct phrasing and tonal character, with no interruption in the phrasing of the other voices. This is remarkable enough when four people manage it, but one! Bach’s deep humanity, which is ever-present in his music, was expressed by the beauty of tone and sensitive coloring Scott obtained from his beautiful Guadagnini violin, which was created 38 years after Bach wrote the sonata.

If the three pillars of music are melody, structure and sound, we were able to hear each one explored during the course of the program. Speaking simplistically, if structure was the outstanding characteristic of the Bach sonata, and melody that of the Schumann concerto, then sneebeauty and variety of sound is the chief quality of the last piece on the program, the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 35 of Anton Arensky. Although no match for his friend, Pytor Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, Arensky was a skillful and industrious composer with a fine ear for instrumental color. He scored his second quartet not for the customary two violins, viola and cello, but replaced one violin with a second cello, whose part was taken, not surprisingly, by Bailey.

The novel scoring allows Arensky to shift the tonal center toward the baritone, and to explore the full coloristic resources of that range. While one cello grumbles in the depths of its C-string, the other sings out on its more penetrating A-string. This also frees the viola from its customary no-man’s land, swamped by two duetting violins and the much louder cello, so that its distinctive timbre can take an equal part in the discussion. The augmented Ying Quartet made the most of Arensky’s burnished tonal pallet, and clarified the link between it and the much more famous explorations in sound by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Larry Lapidus can be reached at larry.lapidus@gmail.com.


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