By Robert Croan
Martin Luther King was the focus of the first concert by Chameleon Musicians in the group’s inaugural season at the Broward Center – a totally engaging performance Jan. 14, by the Amernet String Quartet and Chameleon’s founder-director, cellist Iris van Eck. The series’ new venue is the Center’s Abdo River Room – a sleek, modern space, if not quite as intimate and resonant as the ensemble’s former home in the nearby Josephine Leiser Opera Center.
It was an odd tribute, however. African-American music was represented only by George Walker’s seven-minute Lyric for Strings at the start, and Scott Joplin’s even briefer Maple Leaf Rag at the end. King’s significance was referenced, at least indirectly, in Dvořák’s familiar String Quartet No. 12 (in F, Op. 96), nicknamed the “American” Quartet because some of its engaging melodies were hypothetically adapted from what the composer considered “Negro” music at the time of his visit in 1893. It was an earnest, well-intended homage by the Czech composer, even if the themes themselves are emphatically ersatz.
This is not at all to detract from the Dvořák quartet on its own merits. It’s a major part of the chamber music canon, and in the Amernet’s lively interpretation, the work was pleasant listening from start to finish. The Amernet Quartet – violinists Misha Vitenson and Frantz Felkl, violist Michael Klotz and cellist Jason Calloway – is a familiar and valuable South Florida cultural asset: ensemble-in-residence at Florida International University in Miami, and a frequent guest ensemble on this series.
The Amernet players’ characteristically dark timbre and rhythmic incisiveness infused the entire performance with vibrancy and vitality. There was an easy conversational quality to Dvořák’s opening movement that gave way to depth of feeling in the ensuing Lento. A particularly ingratiating moment in this slow movement was a sweetly rendered melodic phrase accompanied by pizzicato cello, the tune then taken up by the lower instrument with plucked chords from the violin. Bohemian dance rhythms rather than black American motifs dominate the scherzo and finale, and these were cogently emphasized in Amernet’s stirring delivery.
Walker is one of this country’s more significant (and underappreciated) composers. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1922, he overcame racial barriers to forge a career as composer and pianist, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and continuing his musical activity to this day. His Lyric started out as the slow movement of a string quartet, later taking on a life of its own in chamber and orchestral form – much in the manner of Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings, which it resembles. On the basis of Sunday’s expressive performance, the entire quartet – and, indeed more of Walker’s music – would be welcome on future Chameleon concerts.
The most interesting and intriguing work on the program was unrelated to Martin Luther King. Glazunov’s rarely heard String Quintet in A Major (Op. 39) is not music of depth or profundity. Composed in 1892 for string quartet with a second cello, the work harks backwards to Schubert and Tchaikovsky rather than ahead to the 20th century, but this score is grandly melodious, cheerful and buoyant. In many ways, Glazunov shared these characteristics with his compatriot and contemporary, Rachmaninov. Both composers were unashamedly old-fashioned for their time, their music successfully designed toward direct popular approval.
Enhancing the Glazunov quintet’s appeal was the addition of Van Eck’s plush, resonant cello timbre, which lent an orchestral quality to the Amernet’s already full and opulent sound. This was evident early on, as the opening viola solo joined with cello and the remaining instruments gradually built a lush atmosphere. Van Eck’s contribution was most affecting in the lovely Andante, where her gorgeous, ripe-and-rich cello initiated important phrases with ear-caressing eloquence.
In between was a delightful pizzicato Scherzo, crisply delivered. That movement’s brief arco (bowed) interlude set the plucked segments into high relief. And to conclude the work, the ensemble dug into Glazunov’s kinetic, uplifting finale with relish and elan.
Maple Leaf Rag provided a zippy, built-into-the-program encore.