Sunflower Music Festival groups differ in approach

Ben Nyberg, arts critic

By A Contributor

The annual early June Sunflower Music Festival held in the White Concert Hall on the Washburn University campus in Topeka is by most measures a concert goers’ bargain: free admission, top-quality performers, excellent repertory. These pluses consistently draw big crowds, especially for the chamber orchestra performances.

I actually prefer the smaller ensemble recitals, of which I was able to attend a pair this year. The contrasting approaches of the artists featured in these two evenings’ programs offered an instructive picture of divergency in classical music presentational style today.

The recital Saturday June 9, comprised Mozart’s early (K. 174) B-flat major String Quintet, Kodaly’s variegated Op. 12 Serenade, and Schubert’s transcendent C Major String Quintet (D 956). Throughout the program all eight artists involved shared a single-minded commitment to giving every measure of every piece they played the very best of their technical and interpretive capabilities.

Whether it was the delightful, mostly frolicsome Mozart, the zesty and technically challenging Kodaly, or the monumental climb of the Schubert, each work in turn received the care, devotion and constant, fully focused attention that speaks respect for the composer’s intent, the music’s message.

They were what’s called a “pick up” ensemble, professionals all, but not a group that rehearses and performs together on a regular basis. Different members of the team were assigned in accordance with the varying requirements of the works played: two violins, two violas and cello to the Mozart, two violins and a viola to the Kodaly, two violins, two cellos and a viola to the Schubert.

Given the nature of the collaboration, the readings were not note/pitch perfect, but they were something better, they were sensitive and tasteful, and as loyal to their respective scores as it was within the musicians’ collective power to make them. They were a working example of what makes live performance so intense and compelling.

Two evenings later the young Atrium Quartet of St. Petersburg (not to be confused with the St. Petersburg Quartet, currently in residence at Wichita State University) took the same stage to deliver what promised to be another exceptional program consisting of Beethoven’s sometimes dark, always dazzling Op. 74 “Harp” Quartet, Shostakovich’s often eerie, semi-serial Op. 117 Quartet No. 9, and Borodin’s seldom heard Quartet No. 1 (his No. 2 is the one nearly always selected for concert presentation). 

I was immediately impressed with the Atrium’s technical mastery and the precise unity of their execution. But what very quickly hit me was the incredible speed of their delivery, excessive to the point of reckless, with little heed paid to tempo markings (Beethoven actually used Maelzel’s newly invented metronome to indicate playing speeds). They played all the notes, but notes played at such speed are not truly heard.

Whereas with the “pick-up” players it was all about honoring the music, with the Atrium it was all about celebrating themselves. It was an unquestionably, impressively brilliant display of virtuosic pyrotechnics, and the audience rewarded it by rising to their feet, applauding and cheering the spectacle. Sadly their reaction was triggered not by interpretive truth but by a willingness to sacrifice meaning to showboating.

Atrium is a quartet gifted with great potential. Let’s hope they grow into an artistic maturity equivalent to their technical skills.

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