Closing concert of their second season is two parts brilliant, all ambitious
For a group that has so short a season, the Willy Street Chamber Players have certainly managed to create quite a stir in Madison. Last Friday night I finally had the chance to hear what all the fuss was about. In just five performances in July, the group managed to tackle major works by Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Enescu and George Crumb, and threw in a bunch of more standard repertoire along the way. That latter composer had his Black Angels played at MMOCA, but the group’s home is the Immanuel Lutheran church on Spaight St., and that’s where I joined a sizable audience for their 2016 swan song (there is a kind of an encore coming….read to the end!).
It turned out that the only debate of the evening was not whether WSCP are as good as advertised, but whether they’re playing in the right venue. The acoustic of the church proved to be a double-edged sword, certainly lending power and brightness to everything on the program (Corelli, Mozart and Enescu). But it does no favor to the bass lines of the cellos, and certainly is a mixed bag when it comes to clarity.
Typically the group desires slightly shorter programs with no intermission, but we learned at once that we were being treated to a short intermission, as the concluding Enescu Octet ran 40 minutes. The opening Corelli Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 4 featured Eleanor and Alice Bartsch on violin, Lindsey Crabb on cello as the soli group, joined by a handful of other string players. Given the acoustic it was surprising that the harpsichord playing of Jason Kutz emerged more often than not (and cleanly executed, of course). The Bartsch siblings have long been stalwart contributors to the Madison Symphony and other local groups, but as they’ve grown, so have their careers; Eleanor is based in the Chicago area, and Alice recently landed a plum gig with the Calgary Symphony. One is torn on wishing them well and saying (mostly) goodbye!
The true guest artist of the evening was Michael Maccaferri; he is also in the Chicago area and known notably as a member of the chamber group “Eighth Blackbird.” His transversal of the Mozart Quintet for Clarinet and Strings was a liquid wonder, and he is one of those rare players who lock into position and let the instrument do all the talking—no “bob and weave” histrionics here. His crack team players in this masterpiece were Eleanor Bartsch and Beth Larson on violin, Rachel Hauser on viola, and Crabb on cello.
After some delectable “halftime” snacks courtesy of the Underground Butcher, we settled in for the rollercoaster ride of Enescu’s Octet, Op. 7 (1900). I had three reasons for attending this concert, all equal in importance: first to hear WSCP, then the Mozart, being a once-upon-a-time clarinetist, and the Enescu. I have always been interested in the works buried beneath his ubiquitous “Romanian Rhapsody No. 1.” A CD of the Octet has long been part of my collection, but I never thought I’d hear it live (if you really want a new experience, find his opera Oedipe, “Oedipus” on CD). Credit Paran Amirinazari, violinist and artistic director for the Willy St. Players, for the programming and cajoling her colleagues into tackling the work.
It is a deeply emotional, at times thick, work. Symphonic in scope, the eight string players have to deal with numerous treacherous passages of overlap and intonation, and not all was well 100% of the time. No matter; the passion and conviction of the interpretation won out, and I would happily sit through it again.
About that encore…the Willy St. Chamber Players will appear once more, this Sunday (Aug. 7) as part of the new Allen Centennial Gardens series. The concert is free at 4 p.m., with the program TBA according to the Willy St. Players website. If you miss it, you’ll have to wait eleven months for their return…