Willy Street Chamber Players Offers Potent Mix

5th season of WSCP closes with divine Dvorak


The formula really hasn’t changed for the Willy Street Chamber Players since Paran Amirinazari convinced a few friends to play a little more summertime music five years ago: Keep it short (no intermission), program creatively, and then play the heck out of everything. The only thing that seems to have changed in the last summer or two is that the WSCP are attracting compelling guest artists. (The regulars are pictured above, left to right: Rachel Hauser, Eleanor Bartsch, Lindsey Crabb, Mark Bridges and Paran Amirinazari, courtesy of WSCP).

So it was last Friday at the Immanuel Lutheran Church—which was close to three-fourths full fifteen minutes before the friendly early starting time of 6 p.m.—and completely packed by the time the concert began. Two brief works, disparate but equally compelling, opened the proceedings.

The opener was the 1924 Three Nocturnes of Ernest Bloch. The Swiss composer is a neglected resource, as he wrote little for the concert hall or large ensembles. This work was a nine-minute gem featuring guest pianist Christopher Taylor, Amirinazari on violin and Mark Bridges on cello. The sustained string parts and spare piano lines of the piano were perfect for the reverberant acoustic of the church, and while the second movement was a little more lively, the emphasis was still on the blend of the ensemble. The last of the three lived up to its designation, “Tempestoso”—not the usual feeling associated with musical nocturnes—but then again who among us hasn’t had the occasional night of tossing and turning?! The bottom line is that the WSCP shared a composer and played a “minor” work that might well have spurred many in the audience to seek out more of Bloch’s music.

The program listed Jessie Montgomery’s “Voodoo Dolls” (2008) as lasting three minutes; the fact that it was nearly twice that was a result of some improvisation that Amirinazari had indicated in a spoken introduction was part of the piece. The quartet consisted of Amirinazari, Eleanor Bartsch on second violin, Rachel Hauser on viola, and Bridges again. Frankly, the piece was so much fun no one would have minded an encore. Beginning and ending with rhythmic tapping by all four players, and lots of scampering high-jinks along the way, it reminded yours truly of the kind of work the Kronos Quartet was always premiering and championing in the latter part of the 20th century (and beyond, of course); John Zorn’s “Cat-O-Nine-Tails” came to mind. Not that Montgomery was imitative of Zorn or anyone else; there was plenty to recommend it on its own, and yes, lead to further exploration of a composer that, for this listener at least, was totally new.

While Bloch and Montgomery more the hallmarks of the WSCP compelling programming, there must have been a few listeners who most of all wanted to hear what Taylor and WSCP might do with Dvorak’s masterful Piano Quintet, Op. 81. Taylor is one of those musical Madisonians whose wider reputation might exceed the full respect he is due here at home; his victory in the 1990 Kapell Competition, his bronze medal in the Van Cliburn three years later, and the Avery Fisher Career Grant are more than enough to gild any resumé, but it is the praise of usually stinting critics far and wide that deserves to be recalled whenever Taylor plays.

And as usual, Taylor delivered—not just the expected display of keyboard mastery placed at the disposal of the heart of the work, but a cohesion with the string quartet (Taylor, Bartsch, Amirinazari, Hauser and Lindsey Crabb on cello) that sounded as though they have partnered regularly in many a performance. Crabb’s opening solo of yet another sigh-inducing melody by the Czech master, against the gentle ripples from Taylor, immediately placed us at heaven’s gate. At the bottom of the program page it read “Feel free to applaud after entire works or between movements if you feel compelled,” and clearly at the end of the opening Allegro, the compulsion was felt and expressed by more than half of the listeners.

One of the most notable aspects of the overall performance of the 40-minute masterpiece was that, for all its changes of mood and tempo, there was a sense of overriding discipline that ultimately made each climax irresistible. It was in short a performance perfectly suited to crown the WSCP fifth season. While the bad news is we’re eleven months away from their return, there are encouraging signs that WSCP may be adding performances in other seasons—and we can think of no better way to warm up a cold Wisconsin winter (or spring!).

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