Wednesday, February 15, 2017

USC Stars of Tomorrow play Brahms

Five USC Thornton School of Music Stars of Tomorrow
REVIEW

Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
DAVID J BROWN

The future of music is safe! Well, maybe that’s a touch hyperbolic, but if the five players from the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music who delivered this remarkably coherent and mature account of Brahms’ late Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 are anything to go by, it is looking pretty bright, at least in this neck of the woods. The prior email billing and the hand-out leaflet made a point of spelling out their international origins, maybe a bit unsubtly but necessary in these troubled political times. They were (left to right in the above photo) Joseph Lorang, 2nd violin (U.S.A.), Hyunyoung Lee, viola (South Korea), He Chang, 1st violin (China), Yasmina Spiegelberg, clarinet (Switzerland), and Javier Iglesias Martin, cello (Spain). 

The fallback descriptor for Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet is “autumnal”, and in some performances the opening is so freighted with “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” sensibility that there seems nowhere else for the remainder to go but the frigidities of winter. This performance definitely leaned in that direction, and at the outset I was a little concerned that overall other facets of what is an extraordinarily subtle and emotionally ambiguous masterwork might be short-changed. I need not have worried. 

After a measured (given Brahms’ initial unqualified Allegro marking) first movement, where immaculate ensemble plus welcome observance of the exposition repeat (how subtly Brahms leads back into it!) gave an imposing sense of scale, the ensuing Adagio was not particularly slow-moving. But any danger of monotony from two comparably unhurried movements in succession is avoided by Brahms himself through his insertion of the remarkably disturbed piĆ¹ lento central section. The clarinet’s series of increasingly impassioned arabesques – the one place in the whole work where it emerges into real soloistic prominence from its otherwise primus inter pares role with the four strings – are like an earthquake’s jagged disturbance to a seismograph, and Ms Spiegelberg seized the opportunity to give this passage a real “where-is-this-going?” sense of danger.

The third movement Andantino that does duty as a scherzo was appropriately easeful and, in its trio-like Presto non assai, ma con sentimento central section, lightly insouciant, almost skittish. Then it was back to serious matters with the finale, which comprises a theme and five large variations, plus coda. The group vividly characterised each variation, with more definite pauses between them than Brahms actually marks, and drew a convincing emotional arc across a difficult-to-read movement, though the final pair of B minor chords that terminate the coda are pretty unambiguously tragic.

The group’s happy choice for an encore was that other great clarinet quintet variation-finale – Mozart’s. It was delivered as immaculately as the Brahms, and made one wish that there had been time for the whole work.

Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, February 11, 2017.
Photo: Courtesy RHUMC

1 comment:

Rodney Punt said...

So glad you are highlighting the USC Stars of Tomorrow. Already there is a good reception to this nice piece. Bravo. -- RLP