Mendelssohn String Quartet
8 p.m. March 24
Nashville Chamber Orchestra
8 p.m. March 24 at The Factory in Franklin
8 p.m. March 25 at Caffè Milano
By Marcel Smith
Many listeners hear a term like ”chamber music,“ and they assume such pieces can all be lumped into one stylistic category. This weekend, however, offers opportunities to hear two vastly different chamber music idioms. One is traditional, acoustic, demanding long-term attention; the other is more audaciously expressive, amplified, more immediately engaging. Two ensembles playing these two idioms on the same weekend constitute a kind of clinic on chamber music.
The acoustic group, booked into the Ryman on Friday, is the Mendelssohn String Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at Harvard and, every summer, at the North Carolina School of the Arts. The amplified group playing this weekend is the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, which makes two local appearances in the space of two days.
MSQ was launched when the group won the 1981 Young Concert Artists International Audition; it rapidly became known as a fine and versatile quartet. These four musicians tour annually throughout North America, perform frequently in Europe, and were the only American ensemble invited to the First International Dialogues Festival in Kiev, Ukraine. They appear frequently in prestigious music festivals, including New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival and the Aspen, Ravinia, and Saratoga Music Festivals. They have also performed with a distinguished roster of guest artists, including clarinetist Richard Stolzman and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. Critics praising their work often sound hyperbolic.
One attractive aspect of the group won’t be evident at the Rymanits commitment to contemporary music. MSQ has commissioned a lot of new work, both from distinguished composers and from not yet well-known talent. They have recorded a lot of 20th-century composers, from George Antheil to George Gershwin.
At the Ryman, though, their announced program is from the core of string quartet repertory. They offer the Quartet in C Major by Mozart, who with Haydn invented the genre as we know it, and the Quartet in D Major by their namesake. Also, with Ursula Oppens at the piano, they play the compelling and lone piano quintet by César Franck (d. 1890). In this quintet, Franck marries the piano’s richness and variety with a subtle, supple, and expressive weft of strings. This concert’s three selections together embody a centrist definition of the string quartet as a classical music genre.
The more adventurous Nashville Chamber Orchestra is, in effect, a multiply cloned string quartet augmented by selected other instruments. An NCO performance regularly contains, as this concert does, selections from the ”standard“ classical repertory. But NCO, just into its second decade, has also been celebrating some audacious mixed marriages. The group has collaborated with guest artists to incorporate music written and performed by local tunesmiths such as Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters into music scored for chamber orchestra. Most of the scoring is done by NCO’s composer-in-residence, Conni Ellisor.
NCO calls this weekend’s program, which centers on improvisation, ”From Bach to Bebop.“ It features compositions by two legendary improvisers: the second movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major, and Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, arranged for orchestra by Gustav Mahler. The program also features two never-before-heard collaborations between jazz guitarist Levon Ickhanian and NCO’s Conni Ellisor. The guitarist’s dissonant and syncopated virtuosity, incorporating elements from his native Armenia, is interwoven with NCO’s sinewy, versatile strings. The program features as well local flutist/saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who joins the orchestra to play some of his music arranged in collaboration with Ellisor.
NCO’s amplified performance will be very different from MSQ’s acoustic one, in sound and in substance. Some listeners, with ready-made expectations, might choose one instead of the other. But anyone who elected to hear the traditional group on Friday and the more iconoclastic group on Saturday would likely find that hearing one helps to hear the other better.
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