Willy Street Chamber Players Are Back (Hallelujah!)

Opening program an ear-opener, exceptionally played as usual


Thank heaven violinist Paran Amirinazari wanted to play more in the summer, and four years ago or so found some like-minded (and splendidly talented) friends who agreed. The result was the Willy Street Chamber Players, and Friday night they commenced their fourth (all-too-brief!) season at Immanuel Lutheran Church on Spaight Street (a typical view from an earlier season is above, courtesy WSCP).

The WSCP formula is a combination of common sense and unique: Program a compelling mix of underexposed music and masterpieces, and start the intermissionless concert at 6 p.m., ending around 7:30. Even if the audience wants to linger over the yummy treats offered at the informal post-concert reception, there’s plenty of time to add another activity to an inviting summer’s night.

The reviews for WSCP have always been strong, but Friday night uncovered another yardstick of measuring how much the group is held in local esteem: even a casual survey of the crowd revealed a veritable “who’s who” in the Madison classical scene. And yes, the church was as good as sold out.

The focus of the program began with three very new works from composers all new to yours truly—and left me with a strong desire to explore each of them more. First was “Cant voi l’aube” of Caroline Shaw. Shaw is in her mid-thirties, and wrote this re-imagining of an anonymous 12th century trouvere song in 2015. Set for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, the work features harmonics among the string quartet, mostly gentle and always melodic passages for all. The text concerns the bitter disappointment of lovers being forced to part by the approaching dawn. Jazimina MacNeil possesses the perfect voice—velvety and rich—for this work. She showed her versatility in the whimsical “For Sixty Cents” by Colin Jacobsen. Also from 2015 (both his and Shaw’s work were commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Anne Sofie van Otter and Brooklyn Rider), the text he set is a wry pair of paragraphs from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. The passage muses upon how the cup of coffee seems at first overpriced (at sixty cents!), but catalogues all that comes with it, before painting a brief picture of some other customers at the counter. The vocal part is almost matter-of-fact, and here the quartet (again comprised of Amirinazari and Eleanor Barsch, violins, Beth Larson on viola and Lindsey Crabb on cello) is called upon to produce much pizzicato.

Michael Kelly was the composer of the newest work, from this year in fact, and recently premiered in Los Angeles. “Five Animal Stories for String Sextet and Ashug” is a fascinating amalgam of Armenian folk tales and influences. An “ashug” is the area’s version of a troubadour, and in the first four movements, MacNeil simply tells the short tale, followed by the sextet. The tales are more often marked by quirky endings than traditional morals a la Aesop. The music is frequently based on folk songs, some of them centuries old. Along with the aforementioned players, Rachel Hauser on viola and Mark Bridges on cello joined the ensemble. In the fifth and final number, “Clever Rooster and the Giant Bandit Brothers,” MacNeil unexpectedly sang (unexpectedly, since she had already told the tale, and there was no text noted in the program leaflet). It seemed odd in the sense that the music (based first on “Kamancha” by Sayat-Nova and then a 19th-century folk song, “The Wolf and the Lamb”) struck one as being at odds with yet another funny story. But MacNeil’s voice and the section as a whole was nearly a miniature masterpiece in an already fine work.

The masterpiece portion of the program was amply represented by Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111. It is one of the pillars of the chamber repertoire, and again the aforementioned players (minus Crabb), gave a superb reading. Like many of the great chamber works, including others of Brahms, there is a near-symphonic sweep about the work that must be unleashed, along with the intimate moments. The Adagio movement is yet another example of wordless poignancy that is so delicate in the execution, so precious in the hearing. After the big opening movement and that heart-rending Adagio, the intermezzo-ish third movement and the breezy finale almost fall short of maintaining the emotional heights. But the WSCP seemed to have pulled it off—based on the thunderous response, and inevitable (and deserved) standing ovation that required multiple curtain calls before its ebb.

Sorry you missed it? Well, be sure and catch one or both of the last two Friday events, on July 20 and 27, and/or the other community events WSCP has this month. All the details can be found here.

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