The string quartet was one kind of chamber music not heard at Sunday’s opening of the Spokane String Quartet’s 2005-06 season. But the seven performers led the Met audience through a series of rewarding adventures in changing sonorities from a single instrument to full ensemble.
The two principal guests – violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and violist Melia Watras, both of the Corigliano String Quartet – began with Robert Mann’s “Invocation for Violin and Viola.”
It was an unusual encounter with Mann, the composer.
Mann is best known for the nearly 50 years he spent as the founding first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, but he has several chamber and orchestral works to his credit as well.
Mann’s “Invocation” is a short, meditative work written for his daughter’s wedding.
And it might be heard as a father’s thoughts on such an occasion: long, wide-arching melodies sometimes soar together, sometimes pull away from each other. Lim and Watras (themselves a husband-and-wife team) were called on to make playful dissonant bites at each other somewhat in the manner Mann learned from Bartok string quartets, but the ending brought them into union in a gentle unison.
Max Reger, whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, is probably best known now as an organ composer, but Watras performed his seldom heard Suite in E minor for solo viola.
She masterfully explored Reger’s love for the viola’s wide range of sound qualities, from the organ-like richness of its lower register in the improvisatory Adagio to its violinistic brilliance and fleetness in the Vivace and Finale.
Reger’s love of Bach’s long melodies and his fondness for the warmth of Brahms’ harmonies were obvious throughout this Suite’s four short movements.
Lim was the soloist in Georg Philipp Telemann’s Violin Concerto in G major with Watras and Spokane Quartet players Jeannette Wee-Yang, Kelly Farris, and Tana Bland all playing viola along with the quartet’s cellist, Helen Byrne, playing harpsichord and guest string bassist Chang-Min Lee, who has just been appointed principal string bass of the Spokane Symphony.
Strange as it might have seemed to those unacquainted with the versatility of Spokane String Quartet’s players, this was a game of musical chairs that worked very well.
Telemann wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 concertos, but this one is among the strangest. The dark, four-part viola accompaniment contrasted with the brightness of Lim’s violin solo part in much the same way as one of those dark velvet pillows highlights the brilliance of diamonds in a jeweler’s display.
The concert sounded less like a typical concerto than a cleverly orchestrated version of a violin sonata by Vivaldi or Handel. But with Lim’s thoughtful musicality and excellent technical command, the concerto proved a rare and somewhat exotic treat.
After intermission, Lim and Watras joined Farris, Wee-Yang and Bryne of the Spokane Quartet (playing their usual instruments) in Johannes Brahms’ Quintet in G major, Op. 111. When Brahms finished this work, he thought of it as his swan song.
He went on to write several more important works, but none of them, in my opinion, matches the combination of boyish energy and mature sophistication as this Quintet.
The five players immediately dug into the bravura opening of the work and did not let the passion die until the last note of the gypsy-flavored finale. This was a fine close to a delectably varied season opening.
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