Review | Amernet Quartet and friends present a thrilling program at FIU Festival

The Amernet Quartet and friends performed Saturday night at Wertheim Concert Hall for the FIU Music Festival.

October 30, 2021

The FIU Music Festival 2021 presented its sixth concert Saturday evening at the Wertheim Performing Arts Center, with the Amernet String Quartet (violinists Misha Vitenson and Avi Nagin; violist Michael Klotz; and cellist Jason Calloway). FIU’s ensemble-in-residence was joined by violinist Nicholas Kitchen and cellist Yeesun Kim (members of the Borromeo String Quartet), as well as violist Stephanie Block, a New World Symphony fellow, and violinist Mari-Liis Pakk.

A duo, quintet, and octet provided a thrilling evening with music by Mozart, Ravel, and Enescu.

Mozart wrote his fifth and penultimate string quintet in D major K. 593 at the age of 34. This quintet features a second viola part, a setting which Mozart seems to have preferred, particularly enjoying the possibilities of polyphony that the five voices allowed for.

The first movement’s Larghetto opens with a rustic cello call answered by a delicate melody in the violins and violas, a dialogue that is soon enriched by canonic entrances in the Allegro. The musicians leaned into the fluttering phrases with great symbiosis in this movement. The Adagio was rendered with a warm, intimate tone and a gently lilting pace. The final Allegro, a contrapuntal movement that resembles a vigorous tarantella, is filled with restless swirling passages and dense chromaticism. Humor, clarity, and contrast pervaded the ensemble’s reading of this quintet.

Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello was dedicated to Claude Debussy. While it took Ravel two years to complete it, the first movement had already appeared in print in 1920. The work is not typical Ravel, so adored for his luxurious orchestrations.

Instead, this duo strips away all that is superfluous, leaving us with a lean yet potent composition. Whiffs of folk melodies, leaping accentuated tunes, exaggerated pizzicati, austere textures, and unpredictable rhythmic turns make for a unique work. Violinist Kitchen and cellist Kim performed in excellent harmony. Their assertive phrasing and crystal-clear articulation in the first two movements were contrasted by their ethereal tone in the bleak third, while mischievous character shifts in the fourth movement proved to be a playground of colors and timbres for Kitchen and Kim.

The second half featured Enescu’s Octet for Strings in C major Op. 7. The Romanian composer’s panache in this opus hints at a youthful and daring composer, while the complexity and largesse of its musical content displays Enescu’s creative genius.

Written when the composer was merely 19, this octet is a layered polyphonic and cyclical work where the main themes are interwoven in all four movements, played without pause.

Opening with an expansive unison, the first movement is rich with lush melodies and contrapuntal dialogues. The eight musicians played with captivating expressivity and varied, full-bodied textures. The impetuous second movement combines brash angular gestures with Eastern European folk-inspired melodies. After a floating chromatic episode, which the ensemble rendered with a dream-like tone, we are yanked into a gripping fugue. A real test of stamina and technical prowess, this movement showcased the ensemble’s outstanding control of their individual parts, and their ability to come together as one driving force of energy.

A nocturnal third movement offers a mysterious respite. It gently glides through transparent textures and deeply moving conversations between the instruments. The ensemble’s sustained tone production matched the movement’s emotional drama. Their individual lines often carried a sense of spoken rhetoric, bringing the music even closer to the listener.

The finale springs out of a quasi-serenade reiteration of the melodies of the third movement. As they evolve into rhapsodic fragments over tremolos the music takes off in a mad waltz converging the sound worlds of the entire work. Vertiginous exchanges and superimpositions of the angular themes and chromatic episodes generate a ceaseless momentum. As though standing on the edge of a precipice, the octet ends with a final unison gesture reaching towards the stratosphere, once more affirming its grip until the final measure.

The ensemble’s commanding performance delivered a wide range of expression from quiet intensity to menacing boldness. All eight musicians certainly did justice to Enescu’s stunning epic, a work which took four years to receive its premiere due to the level of difficulty and which is so rarely heard live nowadays as well.  

The FIU Music Festival continues November 5 with “German and French Treasures” featuring clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Asiya Korepanova.

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