As Good As It Gets

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center continues the spectacular “100 Years Concert Series” for Union Theater


For eight nights this season, Madison Wisconsin might as well be New York City: as part of the Union Theater’s centennial celebration, we have already been treated to the superb vocalism of Chanticleer, the legendary pianist Emmanuel Ax, the celebrated Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, and the stunning Escher Quartet. The first two have been here before of course, but the string of artists continues with more of the top names in the classical music world.

Thursday night in Shannon Hall we were treated to the crème de la crème of the chamber music world, members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The foursome included the co-artistic directors of the CMSLC, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. With violinst Arnaud Sussman and violist Paul Neubauer the program offered the relative rarities of piano quartets (they are pictured above, courtesy of Tara Helen O’Connor).

All the more disconcerting then, that there were too many empty seats. Oh, it was well attended, but events such as this deserve sold-out venues. To be fair, it is a program that is a tougher sell, even with the cache of Lincoln Center in the name, and it fell during a busy stretch: University Opera just had three performances of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, and this weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra performs. Sigh…so much music, so little time. For that matter, the event in a sense is competing with what is still to come in this centennial year: Wu Han again this Saturday (with the UW Symphony Orchestra), violinist Gil Shaham, and one of the great divas of our generation, Renee Fleming.

This embarrassment of riches is due in large part to the Union Theater partnering with Finckel and Wu Han in planning the season. One can split hairs arguing over which (if any) pianists and cellists surpass them as performers, but when you add in the (married) couple’s gifts for administration and programming, one feels compelled to crown them as chamber music royalty.

Yet Wu Han wasted no time at the beginning of the evening in making us all feel special; her opening remarks included her telling colleagues in New York that, compared to the Union Theater’s one hundred years, the CMS of Lincoln Center is “a baby — only half as old!” She also had an ingratiating manner in illuminating the process of how the program was conceived. It opened with Dvorak’s Sonatine for Violin and Piano, Op. 100 (a nice round number, and one of the works he penned while in America), followed by the Op. 1 Quartet in A Minor by Josef Suk — who became Dvorak’s son-in-law, and was encouraged by Brahms to finish what had started as a single movement work; and the second half given over to one of the greatest and most popular piano quartets, the first by Brahms, Op. 25. Brahms had been crucial as well in helping to launch Dvorak’s career.

In the Dvorak, Shannon Hall again proved to be a perfect venue for chamber music, and Sussman and Wu Han delivered every nuance in the tender and ebullient melodies. The Suk Quartet was a real revelation, and one quickly understood Wu Han’s comment that she was at a loss to explain why it isn’t performed more often. Of course it reminds us of Dvorak…and what’s wrong with that?! Joined by Neubauer and Finckel, the foursome opened with a carefully gauged forte dynamic that left plenty of room to expand with the unabashedly romantic material.

The Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1, popularly known as the “Gypsy,” soon revealed a very interesting perspective. In the genre of piano quintets, that is, piano with a full string quartet, composers often hint at a piano versus strings tussle, almost a mini-concerto (Brahms own Op. 34 masterpiece, almost symphonic in scope, is a perfect example). But here with just one of each string, Wu Han judiciously played the role of equal partner. Frankly, there is nothing more to say than that each of the players executed every note with beauty, balance and unanimity of interpretation. It was the equal of what the Escher Quartet brought in January (with Finckel as guest cellist for the Schubert Quintet). It was simply a display of artistic perfection.

The nickname for the work comes from the gypsy-like material used in the finale, and as boisterously delightful as it was, the fun didn’t end there. One doesn’t always get or expect an encore at chamber music concerts, but we were gifted with Neubauer strolling the aisles in full-bridled gypsy-inflected playing, with his colleagues happily accompanying him from the stage. We learned later that it was an arrangement called “The Canary” by that most prolific of all composers: Anonymous.

But in the end, there was nothing anonymous about the performers from Lincoln Center. Next up: Wu Han plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 this Saturday night at the Hamel Music Center. Information can be found here.

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