Cassatt String Quartet, Ursula Oppens

Works by Frank, Fang, Tower, and Brahms;
Symphony Space, May 6, 2011.

by Anne Eisenberg

The stage at Symphony Space, the performing arts center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was just as you might have expected it to be on May 6th, just before the evening performance of the Cassatt String Quartet and pianist Ursula Oppens. There was a gleaming ebony grand piano ready for Ms. Oppens, and four seats near it for the quartet.

But that’s about all that was standard in the auditorium as people filled the hall in preparation for the concert. Scattered through the audience was a welcome novelty to the usual chamber music concert: dozens of youngsters, some teen-aged students of the Manhattan-based quartet, others children of the musicians. The young people talked, jumped up and down, exchanged toys, and created an excited, laughing din in the hall.

But when the five performers took the stage at 7:30 p.m., silence fell, just as it should (punctuated by the occasional parental “shh”) – and an imaginative program opened.

All four of the evening’s pieces were quintets, and all four were executed with the precise, angular playing of the Cassatt strings and the dashing piano passagework of Ms. Oppens. The first half of the program offered three contemporary pieces; the second half, the familiar Johannes Brahms piano quintet in f minor, op. 34.

The opening quintet, Ghosts in the Dream Machine, composed in 2005, is a two-movement work by Gabriela Lena Frank, inspired, she says in the program notes, by the artwork of Simon Dinnerstein and his “themes of mystery, night, and wonder.” The piano opened and closed the piece, leading with dreamy, fractured arpeggios in long, syncopated sequences and ending with fading, single notes from the keyboard. The composer effectively juxtaposed the percussive power of the piano with the
smooth strokes of the strings throughout the haunting piece.

The misty mood of Ghosts in the Dream Machine was instantly dispelled when the second piece, Images of Lake Erie by Fang Man, opened with a burst of pounding, propulsive piano. Commissioned by Symphony Space for the Cassatt Quartet and Ursula Oppens, Lake Erie had its premiere at the concert.

Ms. Fang, known as Mandy to her friends, but more formally in the program notes as Man, said that Lake Erie is the first of five movements of a proposed quintet. “The idea is for each movement to represent one instrument,” she said. The first movement focuses on the piano. “Ursula is a fantastic pianist,” she said of Ms. Oppens, “and so I composed the movement with her in mind.”

Ms. Oppens had her hands full with the virtuosic piano passages in the piece, but she had other musical roles, too, during the concert. To evoke the sounds of winter, she shook a set of sleigh bells that lay ready nearby on the piano. And she was not alone as percussionist. The violinist Muneko Otani occasionally laid down her violin and took on the triangle or the water phone, an acoustic instrument with a circle of
crown-like, upright metal rods that she struck with a drumstick.

Ms. Fan, an admirer of Sergei Prokofiev and Bela Bartok, said that both composers were inspirations for the propulsive Lake Erie. Ms. Fan is also the composer of Resurrection, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra in 2008.

The first half of the program closed with the somber Dumbarton Quintet, composed in 2008 by Joan Tower. The piece, which has a more traditional melodic base than the earlier pieces in the program, featured lyrical solos for the violin. Ms. Tower, like Ms. Fan before her, was present for the concert and took a bow with the musicians.

After the intermission, during which the cellist, Nicole Johnson, talked with some members of the audience – and explained that some of the young people at the concert were students of hers – the program ended with a spirited rendition of the Brahms quintet, delivered with strong, precise playing from the Cassatt ensemble.

The concert was recorded, and can be heard at the website www.symphonyspacelive.org, the program notes say, in its entirety – except for the bursts of youthful cheer from the audience, which probably can’t be captured there.

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