The Saratoga Chamber Music Festival opened Sunday afternoon at the Spa Little Theatre with the excellent Miami String Quartet, who was making its debut on the series.
Violinists Benny Kim and Cathy Robinson, cellist Keith Robinson, and violist Scott Lee, who has been with the group only for about a year, hit all the right notes in a program that had masterpieces from three different centuries. They were joined on the final piece on the program, Brahms’ Piano Quintet Op. 34 (1866), by pianist and series artistic director André-Michel Schub.
The quartet’s playing was notable for its refined finished sound and precise, clean technique. Everything was done with an attention to detail, a strong control of dynamic levels and a deep musicianship that never faltered.
The Miami began with Beethoven’s Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4 (1799). The mood was exuberant in the opening movement. Cellist Robinson provided much zealous energy and drive to anchor the others. The second movement was done with much finesse, delicate attacks and strong pulses. Ensemble work was especially close. The finale shone with a sunny ebullience and a robust tone.
In complete contrast was Joan Tower’s “Incandescent” (2003), the third of her four string quartets. Written with a wonderfully tight score, it shows what a composer with imagination can do with only a three-note motif, a narrow range and an intense focus. The quartet gave it a bravura performance with plenty of fire, soaring lines of agitation or yearning, and a technical mastery of the very difficult rhythms, which constantly changed. Dynamic levels, which also shifted frequently, were highly controlled.
While this piece was very interesting and seemed to please the audience, the crowd’s response to the Brahms was greatly enthusiastic with whistles and cheers. The piece, which began life as a string quartet, then for two pianos, before it became this epic work on a symphonic scale, is the height of lushness and romance. Schub, who has worked often with the Miami, provided rich tones, full-bodied chords and kept the balances as even as humanly possible. It was a memorable performance.
The Miami sang the marvelously lyrical lines with passion. The ensemble work was solid and close. Climaxes were built with care. Brahms wrote with so much intellectual depth and musical sensitivity that all the players had much to do, much to comment on and interact with.
What was of concern was that the hall was only half filled. With such artistry available to hear live, what will it take to get people to attend? Schub is hoping that a visit with the musicians might inspire. At 7 p.m. on Tuesday before the next concert, audience members can enjoy a talk with the Miami and Schub. The concert is a Mozart celebration and will include a piano quartet, a string quartet and a piano concerto, one of three that Mozart wrote and later arranged for a smaller ensemble. The music will be “heavenly perfection,” Schub said.