Simply amazing. I feel as if for a brief time, I left planet earth. Not sure what happened exactly.
I had meant to attend a chamber music fund raising event for the Red Rocks Music Festival (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Red-Rocks-Music-Festival/152514853589); and that’s where the afternoon started…
Fortunately, I found parking close to the beautiful residence where the concert was scheduled; I say fortunate because if I would have had to park a block or two away, in the state of mind I found myself after hearing Nokuthula Ngwenyama, violin; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Brook Speltz, cello; and Eckart Sellheim, piano; I may not have been able to locate my car. I could have simply wandered in a daze for hours.
The concert opened innocently enough. Moshe Bukshpan general director of the Red Rocks Music Festival, and a professional violinist himself, made some brief opening remarks; removed his jacket, picked up a violin and went to work playing the Gavotte by J.S. Bach from Partita No 3. It wasn’t on the printed program – what a pleasant unannounced surprise!
The program featured the Mozart String Trio in Eb Köchel number 563, mvt 1, Allegro, a brilliant, short piece played by the string players. And was followed by the Schumann Op. 47 Piano Quartet in Eb where the string trio was joined by Eckart Sellheim, piano.
From the first note of the Mozart, I was stunned and surprised by the naturalness and immediacy of the ensemble sound. It was as if they had been playing together as a trio for, oh, say twenty-five years! Their execution was flawless – on what I sometimes think of as the front end of the phrase, and the phrase conclusion. Picture this: it’s one thing for an ensemble to make an attack together, perfectly in tune and perfectly balanced; but to carry that through seamlessly to the phrase ending… well that takes practice, rehearsal, discussions (even some debate at times!); in short, it takes time. And each of the players has a separate musical career – they just got together for this concert.
Nokuthula Ngwenyama, born in California of Zimbabwean-Japanese parentage, is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, attended the Conservatoire National Superieur, de Musique de Paris, and received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University. She has performed throughout the United States and abroad; Atlanta, Baltimore, Indianapolis, and National Symphony Orchestras as well as, Charlotte, Louisiana, Austin, Jackson, Memphis, and Los Angeles Symphony Orchestras among others. She’s played the White House, Lincoln Center, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society – and this is just a partial listing!
Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt is the founding violist of the Dover Quartet, (http://www.doverquartet.com/) First Prize winner and sweeper of every special award at the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013 and winner of the Gold Medal and Grand Prize in the 2010 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. She has won numerous awards for her playing including First Prize of the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition; top prizes at the Tokyo International Viola Competition and the Sphinx Competition. She has worked with acclaimed conductors: Seiji Ozawa, Christoph Eschenbach, Alan Gilbert, Charles Dutoit, and Otto-Werner Mueller. She made a recent appearance with Musica Nova here in Phoenix and was reviewed here: https://gregole.com/2014/10/27/musica-nova-review-of-their-opening-concert-for-the-2014-2015-season/. She is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and subsequently received a Master’s Degree in String Quartet with the Dover Quartet at Rice University.
Brook Speltz, a Los Angeles native has performed as a soloist, chamber musician, and recitalist throughout the US, Canada, Latin America, Europe, and Asia; was First Prize winner of the prestigious Ima Hogg Competition (that’s what it’s called, honest! “Named to honor the memory of Miss Ima Hogg, a co-founder of the Houston Symphony, this prestigious competition is open to young musicians who play standard orchestral instruments and piano...”. I didn’t know and had to check it out! Oh. What’s First Prize? $25,000.). He is an avid and sought after chamber musician, Brook has been personally invited by musical giants Izahak Perlman and Richard Goode to collaborate in chamber music recitals and tours throughout the country. Brook studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and at the Julliard School.
Eckart Sellheim received his musical training in Germany and Switzerland; Adolf Dresher and Jakob Gimpel were among his teachers. He was appointed to the faculty of the two major conservatories in Cologne, Germany and continued his academic career as an Associate Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the University of Michigan. From 1989 until 2008, he was Professor and Director of Collaborative Music at our own Arizona State University. He has made domestic and international concert tours and has an extensive discography of over 20 recordings, a number of them on the CBS-Sony label.
Source for this valuable artist’s information was from the afternoon’s program, and though it seems like a lot of words, I have mercilessly edited and paired down the extensive bios of these accomplished artists. If I’ve left out important details, please let me know in the comments and I’ll fix it! Point: These are internationally acclaimed artists. But they don’t necessarily play together as a group…
Mozart was a vivacious genius of music, and the opening trio from his K. 563 (this places the trio as a later work of Mozart – but considering he died at age 36 it’s like a contradiction in terms!) is a vivacious piece. From the downbeat, Nokuthula shone through – a silver thread of sound, seemingly pulling Milena and Brook though the sonic tapestry like a shuttle in a weaver’s loom.
Melody leading harmony: pure joy – Mozart had a special talent for trios – well you might say he had a special talent for just about everything music! But think about it a minute; he and Papa Haydn were masters of the trio in a special rococo sort of way. Examples abound, but basically they let the melody speak predominantly in a way to “pull” the harmonies. The musical power at work is melody driving forward such that the underlying framework isn’t so much an accompaniment, but drops that role, and acts as a kind of following lead, lending harmonic structure and accompaniment in a free association of equals rather than song and harmony / accompaniment. Just brilliant. Glowing. Genius. This is why people rave about Mozart. Pure genius. But like fire; don’t play with it unless you know what you are doing.
Nokuthula, Milena, and Brook performed this trio as if they were juggling molten, red-hot, sparkling glass, thrown in the air never again to touch the earth; but destined to hang suspended, forever, as a sparkling chandelier of pure gleaming brilliance. Their performance was simply electrifying!
Eckart joined the trio and made a few brief comments about the Schumann Quartet. It was written in 1842 – the so-called year of chamber music for Schumann. His Piano Quintet, also in Eb, was written shortly thereafter and is more well known; but the Quartet is a legend of a piece among chamber musicians and listeners alike. Here is a You-Tube of a reasonably good performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w9LfuhGdFI
This is a starting point for what I heard that afternoon – but consider the link as a black and white movie with half the dialog missing compared to a color movie with Dolby sound. This piece is pure Romance with a capital “R” and simply loses an entire dimension unless it is heard live. And live it was…
Moshe Bukshpan discussed one of the goals of the Red Rocks Music Festival as one of bringing out the intimacy and immediacy of chamber music to the listening public through education and performance. And yes, from Schumann’s opening hymn-like Sostenuto, suddenly, all at once, you felt alone with Schumann’s genius. In order to be intimate with someone, you need to be alone with them. This is the power of musical perfection – like magicians, the players must vanish, leaving nothing to the ear but the purity of the composer’s vision. Eventually, the composer himself vanishes, leaving you alone; alone in communion with his vision; not listening, but awakening. It can make you forget where your car is parked!
I could go on and on – it was like a kind of joyous delirium – Romance with a capital “R”! Some high points: Nokuthula’s violin sound is an amazing combination of brilliance and warmth; a tremendous presence throughout but never, never overbearing. Always was the sense that she could simply ride over everyone else; she has the power, and you half thought at some point she would simply yield to her power, yield, even unconsciously, to the temptation to start, shall we say, playing a concerto. It never happened – nothing but a perfect blend, a warm yet distinct sound like the outline of a bright-colored cloud shielding and illuminated by a noon-day sun.
And Milena! Oh my there were so many amazing moments – her lead well into the third movement, Andante Cantabile brought tears to my eyes! But her virtuoso execution of the passage work in movement IV, Finale Vivace was bravura playing one rarely associates with her instrument. She has a mastery of technical passage work that is simply exceptional – her playing is unnaturally natural; she makes music in every measure regardless of the challenges and hazards, and never shies, underplays, or covers her sound. I have to say, she is a leading proponent of the new generation of violists bringing out the deep sonority and majesty of that noble instrument.
Brook. Did you have your part memorized? There is no wonder he “is an avid and sought after chamber musician“. His communication, his attention to his colleagues – it seemed like half the time he was looking at and relating to Milena and Nokuthula and not even paying attention to the printed page! Just amazing to see…and hear! And what an interesting sound he has on the 1756 J.C. Gigli cello he has on loan from his father, also a cellist. An intense sound, penetrating but somehow subdued, but never to be ignored. His melody in Mvt III was riveting; noble and selfless; artistic elements quite at odds in today’s aesthetic; but a wellspring of purity of spirit – refreshing, but void of sentimentality. Truly hearkening back to a spirit worth recalling from the romantic era that gloried in it, and reinventing it in today’s vernacular.
I wasn’t familiar with the Schumann until this concert, so I did some homework today, downloaded a score from IMSLP, and called up a friend of mine, a violinist, who has great experiences playing chamber music, and putting pieces together on short order and I asked her about the Quartet of Schumann. She was pensive for a moment, and said, “If you have to put this piece on in short order, you’ll need good string players, but you need a great pianist!”
Enter Eckart Sellheim – raised and deeply grounded in the music of German Romanticism; he is a national treasure in two countries. His playing was spotless, and perfectly suited to the room (piano in a close environment), he was in control – in control of himself. Why do I need to even say this? Because today, all too many pianists playing mixed group chamber music unfortunately direct their control to the performance instead of prudently, to themselves. His playing was a picture of precision, restraint, and taste. A feast for the connoisseur.
After the concert, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Milena a few questions: “Milena, why Eb?” She laughed, her eyes sparkling, “That’s a good question! I never thought about that; but you know, it’s just so bright and joyous.” It’s also one of the toughest keys to play string instruments in – Gad I dread Eb on guitar! I asked her about Curtis; was there a connection? “Well, yes and no. I knew Brook there, but Nokuthula was there before us and we met later.” Testimony to the fraternity of musicians. Like-souls travel a common path. The future: “We (Dover quartet) have a full performance agenda, and are considering a recording engagement.”
Take it from me: these musicians are superstars; are young, and are amazingly exciting in live performance. Stay tuned!