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String Theory 

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at Orchestra Hall

October 21

When Chamber Music Chicago executive director Susan Lipman took over the administrative helm of the Fine Arts Music Foundation in 1982, she had her work cut out. Not only were audiences declining, but the subscriber base of more than 1,400 had dwindled to less than 300. In addition, the organization, which was established to focus on and support the activities of the Fine Arts Quartet, no longer had a relationship with the quartet.

One of Lipman's first moves was to change the organization's name to "Chamber Music Chicago," suggesting that it be the "voice of chamber music in Chicago." CMC recently celebrated the gala opening of its 30th anniversary in better artistic and financial health than ever. And the CMC-Lipman tradition of unusual, risk-taking programming was very much in evidence.

Making its Chicago debut was the virtuosic Vienna Chamber Philharmonic, which is also on its first North American tour. Founded four years ago by 24-year-old music director Claudius Traunfellner, this string orchestra is made up exclusively of extraordinary young graduates of the Vienna Music Academy and the Conservatory of Music of Vienna. Traunfellner led the first half of the program, which included the Bach Brandenburg Concerto no. 3, the Mozart Divertimento K. 138, and the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings op. 48.

The Vienna Chamber Philharmonic is a modern-instrument ensemble, so it seemed a bit odd to put so much emphasis on early music on their first tour. Early music requires only a small ensemble (the group never grew beyond 18 players for the evening), but playing it on modern strings encourages a stodgy, slower approach that will allow the higher-tensioned instruments to resonate in the more Romantic manner for which they were intended. Or so I thought.

When Traunfellner gave the downbeat for the opening allegro movement of the Brandenburg, I held my breath, it was so fast. Not that fast is everything, but if you play this music on Baroque strings, you become aware of the tempo that Bach intended. Playing Baroque music that fast on modern instruments means having to fight the instruments much more to produce the same effect as older instruments. Traunfellner didn't seem to mind the challenge and kept a brisk tempo and lively feel throughout the two fast movements. They were joined together by a long, slow harpsichord cadenza, which Bach intended to be improvised, although it virtually never is today. This was not cuckoo-clock Bach, every beat discernible and squarely in time; this was Bach that was allowed to breathe, with free and lyrical phrasing, extraordinarily precise ensembling, and perfect balancing.

Perhaps Vienna has become enlightened about Baroque performance methods, I thought, but surely Mozart would be slow and Romantic, the Viennese performance tradition for more than a century. Wrong again. This was first-class Mozart, bursting with old Viennese charm and refinement, yet fresh and exciting. Traunfellner has an uncanny sense of Mozartean structure and brought out great lyrical beauty and poetry in every phrase. His tempi--which were quite brisk, though never needlessly so--were convincing, and his dynamic contrasts and colors effectively evoked the many moods of this music. There were no repeats, though this was one of the times I wished there had been.

The group's weakest performance was the more frivolous piece on the program, the Tchaikovsky serenade. Technically, it was a more than capable performance, but it should have been a breeze for this group. It needed either a larger string ensemble to bring it off, or a large, rich, Romantic sound from the few players that did play. The tempi were consistently too fast, and there was little of the color--particularly in the lower string lines, which sounded far too thin--that this music at its best can produce.

I first heard the artistry of Nigel Kennedy on a tape a friend sent me. He was playing Bartok, and I was immediately blown away by the things he was doing with the music, things that were even more remarkable when he played Bartok here last year. Sometimes I fear that the sounds I expect from a violin exist only in a Platonic world of perfect forms; as a producer, I am constantly nagging string players for pure articulation, as well as a variety of colors and sounds. Most string players, even those of world-class stature, have one basic sound they can produce well. But ask them to vary it in any way and the sound usually starts breaking up. (The same is true of most singers.) What is so remarkable about Kennedy's playing is not only that his technique is as fine as any player's on the scene today, but that he can produce an endless variety of sounds, sounds that you may not have even thought of as being possible on a violin.

Recently I attended a local early-music ensemble's performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and came away totally bored with this frivolous and much overrated and overplayed music. In the second half of this program, which Kennedy played and conducted, he showed me there can be much more to this work than meets the ear, although I suspect Kennedy had at least as much to do with that as Vivaldi.

Kennedy told the audience he wanted to avoid the two performance extremes often taken with this music: the early-music approach, which Kennedy feels is disrespectful of tradition because it ignores the last 150 years of it, and the Romantic approach, in which performers play what they feel, but with one basic tone color and vibrato throughout. To his credit, Kennedy avoided both poles and created a hybrid, a kind of performance of the future: the influence of the early-music movement being heard in such things as fast tempi and pure, straight tone, but played with the interpretive and deeply personal performing licenses taken by Romantic interpreters.

One could not imagine the fast sections of these pieces being played more quickly, although they also had a deliberate aggressiveness and harshness that was often overstated. I admire what Kennedy was trying to accomplish, but he sometimes slid over the edge and let effects take precedence over music making. Kennedy revealed a huge palette of dynamics and sound, more than I have ever heard offered in these works. But there were few grays among the variations of loud and harsh, and very soft and pure. Surely he is capable of even greater variety. There were times, as in the middle movement of "Winter," when a mellow, darker, more introspective sound would have been perfect. Kennedy's tempi were convincing and effective, if sometimes a bit pushed.

After a clever Baroque/jazz arrangement of "Sweet Georgia Brown"--complete with Grappelli-like improvisations and licks that he and the Vienna principals traded back and forth--Kennedy led the orchestra and audience in a lively chorus of "Happy Birthday" to Chamber Music Chicago. And many more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Miller.


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