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CityMusic players and guests revel in intimate works
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, May 17, 2011

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio - Musicians who spend a good deal of their time in orchestras aren’t used to making many decisions by themselves. The conductor usually takes care of most of them, which is why players feel liberated when they join forces to perform chamber music.

To say that the freedom could be felt almost viscerally when members of CityMusic Cleveland and guests got together Tuesday at Fairmount Presbyterian Church for a chamber-music program would be an understatement.

The concert had a renowned visitor, cellist Matt Haimovitz, who never dominated the proceedings. Instead, he worked closely with his colleagues in works that grew in instrumental size and moved back in time as the evening progressed.

The opening work, Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35, is fascinating in part because it employs two cellos, rather than the usual complement of two violins. The dark sonorities emphasize Arensky’s tribute to his late friend, Tchaikovsky, one of whose songs is quoted in the slow movement. But it’s not all sorrow and pain. This rich score contains music of great exuberance amid harrowing romanticism.

Haimovitz teamed with violinist Ling Ling Huang, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama and cellist Keiko Ying in a performance that savored Arensky’s ardent phrases and vibrant interplay.

These musicians welcomed violinist Ai Nihira and violist Cynthia Black for Brahms’ Sextet in B-flat major, Op. 18, an early work that shows the composer already in full command of structures and thematic material. The score is a fountain of poetic ideas that needs special handling for the music to sing at its most subtly fervent.

For some reason, the musicians turned up the heat – and their vibratos – to the point where sonorities often turned strident. There were moments of grandeur amid the harshness, but the aggressiveness of the playing dampened the nuances and warmth that are built into the piece.

Happily, much of the sonic fat was trimmed when it came time for Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, an example of a soon-to-be-titanic composer at his most Classically gracious. Along with the novel scoring are six movements of pleasurable tunefulness and buoyancy.

Nihira made a heroic impression in the wicked first-violin part, and she partnered engagingly with her string colleagues - Ngwenyama, Haimovitz and double bassist Tracy Rowell – and three elegant wind players: clarinetist Daniel Gilbert, bassoonist Laura Koepke and hornist Neil Kimel.