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Music review

Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival, inside and out

Attending rehearsals gives context to performances

If you want to understand music better, go to a rehearsal. You begin to appreciate the skill and care that goes into music-making.

The Tucson Chamber Music Festival offers free open rehearsals on the mornings of concerts. It’s an opportunity to watch seasoned professionals practice their craft in ways that are not always obvious in concerts alone.

Tuesday morning the piece being worked out is John Harbison’s "November 19, 1828: Hallucination in Four Episodes for Piano and Trio." A very modern chamber piece, it imagines the sounds composer Franz Schubert heard in his mind at death, quoting his works, then distorting them as they repeat, like melting wax.

The musicians don’t stop or talk, barely look up until they have played through the entire piece for the first time. A relatively obscure work, it’s likely none of them have ever played it before nor have they ever played together as a group. They finish the first run-through.

"Does it need to be more mystery?" the cellist asks.

"It’s whimsical, I think," replies the violist.

"Let’s split the difference," the pianist opines. "It’s beautiful, I think."

The cellist, noticing the audience watching the conversation, explains to them, "The piece is difficult because it sounds normal for awhile and then it doesn’t. He throws in a curveball."

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The musicians engage in an intense discussion before continuing. They agree that the work is "charmingly grotesque."

They return to the final section, an imagined fugue that Schubert did not finish before dying. They play with deep concentration, staring at their music stands. As their final notes hang in the air, they look up at each other as the sounds fade to silence. Then there are smiles and nods.

During the rehearsal of Maurice Ravel’s "Chansons madecasses," three songs for baritone, flute, cello and piano, flutist Carol Wincenc asks, "Am I too loud at four?"

"Maybe. I thought that was good," the cellist replies.

"I’ve always wondered just how exact that should be," the flutist notes. "It seems like such an 'improve' kind of place. Could we do 3 in 2?"

Most of the discussion during this rehearsal, nailing down tempo and intonation for short specific sections of the songs, turns out to be about where in the score to start. The playing itself is second nature to each of them.

Sunday Afternoon Performance

Sunday afternoon’s opening of the 17th Annual Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival featured the Miró String Quartet.

Relatively young, they began playing together at Oberlin University. Named after Spanish surrealist Joan Miró, they recently released a two-disc set of Beethoven’s six Opus 18 quartets. It is part of an ambitious project to record all 16 Beethoven quartets when they are at approximately the same age as Beethoven when he composed them.

Their opening performance, Beethoven’s "Quartet in C minor, Opus 18, Number 4" was a quirky and idiosyncratic reading, full of tempo and dynamic exaggerations. They played as if it were a full-blown Romantic work, ignoring its mannered late-Classical origins, when Beethoven was still working his way out of the long shadows cast by Haydn and Mozart.

Oddly, this anachronism makes sense: if you’re going to record Beethoven, you better have something new to say. Their enthusiasm and expressive playing is exactly what might bring a younger audience to this music. The very savvy – and older — chamber festival crowd gave generous applause, but remained seated.

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Their second piece, Dmitri Shostakovich’s "Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57" had a different outcome. Joined by Kevin Fitz-Gerald on piano, they played more conventionally, with assured tone and conviction, an ethereal chorus to the piano’s dark rumblings. They created both a bright and slow burning fire, heightening the work’s melancholic sweetness. This time they got a well-deserved standing ovation.

Finally, in Schubert’s "String Quartet in G major, D. 887," the Miró Quartet demonstrated their world-class standing. Their straightforward reading and exceptionally tight ensemble playing wrung out the full drama of this quartet composed shortly before Schubert died at age 31. They received a standing ovation and two curtain calls.

Meanwhile, back at the hall

Rehearsing Schubert’s “String Quintet in C major, D. 956”, the cellist is at a disadvantage.

For this performance, he is joining an established quartet. They have developed a shorthand and casual manner with each other, forged from long hours working and touring together. They treat him respectfully, but it’s obvious that they have established ways of interacting, unwritten rules of deference on issues of tempo or tone.

Because time is limited, it’s agreed to work on the internal movements first. The quartet finds their phrasing intuitively and the cellist smiles, enjoying working with a tight professional ensemble, and knowing that he will have to keep up with them.

As they play, a cell phone goes off in the audience. As the individual tries to skitter out the door, the musicians one by one start chuckling, then crack up and stop. "Let’s try that again."

Afterward, the quartet members immediately parse their performance, cross-talking.

"Should we be releasing bar four?"

"I don’t like it, I’ll be honest."

"You’re playing the softer color, so I’m just going to drop down."

"Bop-bam-out, but I think it might just be the articulation."

"It was a beautiful concept that wasn’t working."

"Do we have some room to come down?"

The cellist, watching their working relationship on display, addresses the audience, amused. "It sounded fine to you," he says and shrugs. "They are the quartet."

"It sounded fine the first time," the violinist admits, then adds with a laugh, "We usually make it worse."

They run through more sections. "It’s like a grizzly bear and nightingale," the cellist notes after one phrase.

"You’re going sharp there," the violist tells his colleague. It’s not confrontation, just a helpful, professional observation. He’s having trouble himself with one phrase.

"Yeah, I know," the violinist replies and nails the pitch on the next run-through.

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"Creative paranoia is useful," someone says.

Tuesday Evening Performance

Tuesday evening’s performance opened with Rumanian violinist Robert Davidovici and Czech harpist Katerina Englichova playing a work by the most French of composers, Camille Saint-Saëns. The "Fantasy for Violin and Harp, Opus 124" has wonderful sonorities and requires some virtuoso playing, which the pair managed handily.

Overall, it’s lovely but lightweight, and their performance was the equivalent of executing a perfect dive with a low technical difficulty.

Ravel’s "Chansons madécasses" featured baritone Christophern Nomura, with Carol Wincenc on flute, Steve Doane on cello and Kevin Fitz-Gerald on piano.

Some of Ravel’s accompaniment for these three songs is so abstract that it makes free jazz sound lyrical by comparison. Nomura sang enthusiastically and with great technical skill, but the strangeness of the songs failed to garner more than nice applause.

The Harbison piece, "November 19, 1828" also suffered for its modernity. The impromptu trio of Axel Strauss (violin), Roger Chase (viola) and Steve Doane (cello) performed with pianist Bernadene Blaha.

The trio attacked together like longtime partners and added collective tonal twists, starting out with a rich, full sound then shifting, as Schubert’s phrases were distorted, ending with a harsh, reedy tone. Blaha contrasted this with dreamlike melodies. Doane had to gesture that the piece was over before the audience dared applaud.

Doane then joined the Miró Quartet for Schubert’s String Quintet. Guided by their expressive body language, he had no trouble meshing with the younger players for an outstanding performance, achieving a consort-like richness of sound. Amusingly, a muffled cell phone again went off while they were playing, but this time they were immune from distraction.

Overall, compared to rehearsal, their performance was more restrained, focused and intelligent. They finished to an immediate standing ovation and shouts of “bravo” from the crowd.

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Courtesy artist website

The Miró String Quartet

If you go

The Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival continues through March 14 at TCC's Leo Rich Theatre. Visit the festival website for a full schedule.