By Robert Croan
The Adagio movement of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major is one of the most sublime, transfixing moments in all music. The entire work, composed shortly before the composer’s early death in 1828, is one of the greatest achievements in the chamber music genre. It’s dramatic, it’s anguished, it’s pugnacious, it’s soul-searching, and it’s very, very difficult to play. It might be considered Schubert’s requiem for himself, never performed in the composer’s lifetime.
On Sunday at the Josephine S. Leiser Opera Center in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Chameleon Musicians gave a technically accomplished, emotionally packed rendition of this monumental masterpiece that resonated long after the performance was over. The performers were the Amernet Quartet, ensemble-in-residence at Florida International University in Miami – violinists Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl, violist Michael Klotz and cellist Jason Calloway – with cellist Iris Van Eck filling out the ensemble.
It was announced at Sunday’s concert that starting next season, Chameleon’s excellent chamber music series will move to a venue in Broward Center, a big step for the organization, which has been diligently nurtured over the years by Van Eck, Chameleon’s founder and director. Still, there’s an intimacy and personal quality in the small space of the Leiser Center that will, hopefully, not be lost in the transition.
The players maintained this intimate quality while also bringing out the quintet’s symphonic elements. To achieve the depth of sound he wanted, Schubert added a second cello to the standard string quartet combination, rather than a second viola, which was more common in string quintets (including Mozart’s) up to this time. The Amernet’s characteristic sound is dark, appropriate to this music, and from the start it was clear that this would be a performance of thoughtfulness and gravitas.
The first-movement Allegro was reverberant and incisive; the Adagio’s slow-moving harmonies over a pizzicato foundation came through with otherworldly impact, enhanced by the individual players’ wide range of dynamic shadings and instrumental colorations. The whirlwind scherzo and fast balletic finale had rhythmic bite and unflagging intensity.
It’s generally accepted now that Schubert was a gay man living in an alien society. George Onslow, a prolific French composer (1784-1853), was the son of a prominent British politician who had fled to France and married a French woman to escape the consequences of a homosexual scandal. Onslow was, for most of his life, wealthy and successful, although his fame diminished quickly after his death.
His String Quintet No. 30, which preceded the Schubert, is a happy, confident work with Beethovenesque aspects in its aptly labeled opening Allegro grandioso. The Chameleon players did well in contrasting the piece’s serious elements (which extend to a cerebral sort of minuet) with a gentle, gracious slow movement and a light, gigue-like finale.
Another outsider to her society was Amy Beach, a very talented composer who would have been far more famous had she been a man. When she married the wealthy Dr. Henry Harris Aubry Beach, she agreed to “live according to her status,” which meant, act as a society matron and give her music a secondary place. Her works were published as by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, which encouraged male chauvinists for many years to denigrate her as “Mrs. Ha-Ha Beach.” She was, in fact, a highly accomplished creative artist whose music is only now starting to get the attention and appreciation it deserves.
Chameleon is honoring Beach’s 150th birthday this year with several performances, and Beach’s single-movement String Quartet (Op. 89) opened the program, pleasing listeners with the music’s consistent high quality and variety of imagination. Composed at the MacDowell Colony in 1921, this quartet incorporated Eskimo or Inuit melodies in a modern context of changing tonalities. Much of the quartet is tonal and lyrical, but there are flights of agitation, even violence, which resolve into a lovely peaceful conclusion.