News & Reviews

Miró Quartet and Jeffery Kahane Provide Musical Relief for Fire-Ravaged Sonoma County

October 31 | Reviews

By Steve Osborn for San Francisco Classical Voice

Sonoma County’s Green Music Center has stood silent but unscathed the past few weeks as the county begins to recover from the devastating fires that began on the evening of October 8, only a few hours after a Santa Rosa Symphony concert in the Music Center. Since then, concerts by the Symphony, the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields, Peter Serkin, and several others have been cancelled at the GMC’s two halls: Weill (1,400 seats) and Schroeder (250 seats).

The silence for classical music lovers came to an end on Oct. 28 with a memorable concert in Weill Hall by the Miró Quartet and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, the former conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony. Kahane has maintained strong ties to Sonoma County, and he proved an ideal performer to help coax fire-weary local residents back into the GMC.

Chamber music concerts in Weill Hall are usually restricted to the ground floor, which is often only half full. For the Miró/Kahane concert, however, almost every one of the 750 available seats was taken. In pre-concert remarks, the GMC’s new executive director, Jacob Yarrow, gave much of the credit to Kahane, who had suggested opening the show to everyone, asking them to “come as they are and pay what they can.” (The box office later confirmed that about one-third of the tickets were complimentary.)

The concert began with five selections from Dvorak’s rarely heard Cypresses for string quartet. The source of the rarity is evident from the piece’s content: 12 “songs without words” adapted from a song cycle written early in Dvorak’s career. Without the overarching narrative supplied by the lyrics, the songs in the instrumental version seem disconnected.

The Miró tried to solve this problem by reading the original lyrics before performing each song. Their solution was only partially successful, however, because they are not trained actors, and their unamplified voices didn’t project well in the large hall. They would have done better to work with a professional actor who could have read the lyrics with drama and volume.

On the other hand, the music was gorgeous. The transparent textures of the songs, coupled with the players’ exquisite sensitivity, allowed the sublime melodies to shine forth with the accompaniment well in the background. All the instruments shared in the melodic line, either in solos or duets. The third song, “When thy sweet glances fall on me,” was exceptionally beautiful, with a languid and ethereal melody that perfectly matched the lovelorn text.

When Kahane entered the stage to perform the Brahms piano quintet, the concert quickly moved from the travails of love to the triumph of the human spirit. Few pieces in the repertoire encompass as much territory as this remarkable quintet, which moves with ease from utmost serenity to unbridled frenzy.

Kahane sat behind the quartet, with the lid of his piano fully open. Because the floor of Weill Hall is only gently raked, he disappeared from view for much of the audience, but he was ubiquitous nonetheless. He interacted with the string players as if he were one of them, never drowning them out or stepping on their lines. The balance among all five players was a model of equanimity.

The ensemble adeptly traded lines and motives, with the prominence shifting repeatedly among the instruments. Everyone seemed fully aware of what their colleagues were playing, especially Kahane, who shifted constantly from foreground to background.
Beyond control of dynamics, the string players achieved remarkable unanimity of sound, playing as one down to the pressure and strokes of their bows. In their and Kahane’s hands, the Brahms became an ever-surprising journey into the deepest possibilities of musical thought. Nothing was predictable, yet everything the performance slowly uncovered seemed inevitable.

During the intermission, the audience exchanged fire stories and detailed their losses, but the mood was upbeat. The second half elevated the mood even more with a sparkling performance of Dvorak’s second piano quintet, a masterpiece on equal footing with the Brahms. In some ways, the Dvorak is the more transcendent of the two, carrying the listener into a realm of boundless joy and festivity.

Dvorak was a violist, and that middle instrument shines brightly throughout the quintet, nowhere more so than in the second movement, a stately dumka (folk ballad). Violist John Largess made the most of his solo opportunities, playing with a deep, rich tone that at times out-deepened the cellist, Joshua Gindele, who often played on his instrument’s upper strings. In contrast, Largess played entire phrases on his lowest string, shifting effortlessly and imperceptibly along its length.

All five musicians played the subsequent furiant (frenzied dance) movement with tremendous energy and agility, careening forward without pause into the final Allegro, an irresistible rondo. Despite the breathtaking speed, nothing was unruly, and all the lines were crystalline, with each player clearly evident. The rock-solid chorale near the end brought the music down to earth for a brief moment before the exhilarating closing bars. The ovation was immediate and sustained.

After being called back on stage a third time, the ensemble performed the last movement of Schumann’s piano quintet, considered the originator of the genre. Unfortunately, the performance was not quite up to the Brahms or Dvorak, perhaps because the movement was taken out of context or insufficiently rehearsed. The blend was muddy at times, and the arch of the narrative was often lost. But the performance was stirring nonetheless, yet more evidence that the GMC is back in full swing.

Stay updated on Miró Quartet's latest performances and recordings.