An Opera, A Poem, and Florence

Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio opens with a sextet for strings – The Jerusalem Quartet opened with the piece as well in the first chamber music performance of the 2018-2019 season yesterday at Chicago’s Symphony Center.  The renowned Israeli ensemble is on tour with the legendary Pinchas Zuckerman on viola and cellist Amanda Forsyth, who round out a sextet of the highest caliber.

Capriccio is Strauss’s final opera, completed in Vienna in 1943 after the composer fled Nazi Germany with his family.  The sextet is composed in the rococo style of the 18th century – the opera is set around 1775.  As the curtain rises, the cast of the opera is gathered to hear the performance of the piece.  The sextet provides the anchor for the question that drives the opera – is music or poetry the greatest art?  The Jerusalem Quartet plus two played it spectacularly; the precision of the individual parts and deft interweaving of the pleasant harmonies of the work marked a gentle but impressive beginning to the afternoon’s program.

Next up was the 1899 composition Transfigured Night, Arnold Schoenberg’s early work for sextet.  The range of emotion and color Schoenberg draws out of the instruments in this piece of program music – music meant to tell a story – is extraordinary.  The inspiration for the work is the Richard Drehmel German language poem of the same name, “Verklarte Nacht.”  The poem narrates a couple’s stroll at night, during which the young woman reveals to the young man that she’s carrying a child, “but not by you.”  The poem reveals the man’s acceptance and the couple’s exuberance by the end, “May the child you’ve conceived not burden your soul”…“You’ve transfused me with radiance.”  By the finale, the music shimmers with pianissimo whisps of delight and tenderness, perfectly executed by all.

After Intermission the program turned to Tchaikovsky’ String Sextet, Souvenir de Florence, an energetically lyric piece in four movements composed in 1890 and revised continually until shortly before the composer’s death in 1893.  Tchaikovsky returned from a holiday in Florence with a sextet on his mind – the result was a florid first movement, a beautiful adagio, then two movements infused by folk songs, always a favorite of the Russian Romantic.  The third movement is a parade of pizzicatto, a particular crowd-pleaser at Symphony Center yesterday.  The audience applauded after each movement, offering a standing ovation after the fourth.  For an encore, Quartet violist Ori Kam announced, “We figured you guys would love Tchaikovsky, so we made an arrangement of an aria from Eugene Onegin to play for you.”

The range of old and new perspectives that sprung from the musical selections made for a singular program.  There was the classical, presented through the lens of the mid 20th century via Strauss, to the authentically Romantic Tchaikovsky.  The Schoenberg is an ahead-of-its-time early tonal work that was thoroughly hated upon its premiere near the turn of the 20th century, and the brand new arrangement for sextet of the operatic Tchaikovsky aria was certainly a success in Orchestra Hall!

Zukerman is a legend – I’ve wanted to see him play for a long time.  Forsythe is an accomplished and formidable cellist as well – the two are married; a power pair.  The Jerusalem Quartet has been playing together to great critical acclaim for nearly 25 years.  It was a special treat to see the cello played by Quartet cellist Kyril Zlotnikov – the instrument belongs to Daniel Barenboim, the longtime conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Barenboim was married to the legendary cellist Jacqueline Dupree, to whom the cello belonged before she died.

Yesterday was a day of many thousands of spectacular performances in Chicago – as Michael and I walked home through the light mist we were accompanied by the final runners of the Chicago marathon – about 45,000 were registered.  Congrats to all!

Thanks for reading.


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