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Review: A delightful chamber music weekend with Regency Piano Quartet at Spivey, Molly Blank Series at Breman

members of the Atlanta Opera Orchestra perform at the Breman Museum.
Spivey Hall at Clayton State University
Spivey Hall at Clayton State University

Atlanta’s chamber music scene is full of surprises. Such was the case on Saturday evening when a group billed as the Regency Piano Quartet performed at Spivey Hall. A completely unfamiliar ensemble name, the group was presented not by the Hall’s artist series but by the Division of Music at Clayton State University’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts.

Composed of regional performers — violinist Betul Soykan, violist Maggie Snyder, cellist Nan Kemberling and pianist Alexander Benford — the quartet opened with the Phantasy for Piano Quartet, H. 94 by Frank Bridge. In this work, the trio of strings were a tight, energized ensemble with strong musical empathy between them. Benford’s piano playing was lyrical, nicely balanced and not overstated, complementing the strings but not merely tagging along.

Beethoven’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in E-flat major (WoO 36) did not fare so well. The pianist was somewhat bangy at moments, and the sense of ensemble was a little shaky. That it was a frankly formulaic piece of juvenilia written when the composer was 15 years old didn’t help.

However, the more assured performance heard in Phantasy mostly returned in the final work, the Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67 by Joaquin Turina, which, like the music of his compatriot Manuel de Falla, exudes Iberian character as seen through Parisian-tinted glasses.

Violinist Betul Soykan
Violinist Betul Soykan

Here’s the kicker: the Regency musicians have been together for only a month, a handful of rehearsals, and came together for a single concert to fulfill Soykan’s doctoral studies at University of Georgia. Benford expressed hope the quartet would continue to perform as a group. Based on the Bridge and Turina works, they certainly should, taking care to play to their strengths.

A packed house greeted the second installment of the new Molly Blank Concert Series on Sunday afternoon at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum. The series is a joint venture of the museum and the Atlanta Opera.

The concert explored vocal and chamber music by Jewish composers from the 19th and 20th centuries in Germany and Austria (Mahler, Mendelssohn), in France (Meyerbeer, Halevy, Offenbach) and the United States (Bloch, Korngold, Bernstein, Gershwin). The premise was that these composers experienced religious or ethnic prejudice even as they achieved musical success, becoming (to quote the program) “essential for understanding today’s musical landscape.”

Baritone Andrew Garland
Baritone Andrew Garland

All of the vocal music was sung by operatic baritone Andrew Garland, accompanied by New York–based collaborative pianist Mark Moorman. The 11 songs constituted the majority of the program. Garland, who made his Atlanta Opera debut in 2010 as Schaunard in “La Boheme,” demonstrated a robustly warm and focused voice with an ability to seamlessly back off into translucent sweetness in his upper register when expressive demand called for it.

Two of the songs were paired with string quartet excerpts performed by top members of the Atlanta Opera Orchestra — violinists Peter Ciaschini and Helen Kim, violist William Johnston and cellist Charae Krueger. Mendelssohn’s song “Frage: Ist es war?” (“Question:Is it true?”) was followed by the first movement of his String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, which makes use of the same tune in its opening adagio section. Likewise, the “Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto” from Korngold’s String Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major was followed by the tanzlied “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from his opera “Die tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”).

Ralph Gilbert: Two Basses
Ralph Gilbert: Two Basses

During both string quartet works, images by visual artist Ralph Gilbert were projected on the screen at the back of the stage. All of Gilbert’s bold oils were drawn from paintings commissioned by the Milken Archive for Jewish Music in Santa Monica, California.

The audience also was afforded a rare opportunity to hear Atlanta Opera music director Arthur Fagen perform as pianist in Bloch’s “From Jewish Life” with cellist Krueger. Although Krueger was ailing, she was spot on in an emotionally engaged performance that was one of evening’s highlights.

Commentary from both Fagen and Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, who took on the lion’s share, enhanced the evening, verbally gluing the musical selections together within the event’s overarching cultural theme.

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