Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Shanghai Quartet

with Michel Lethiec, clarinet
Oct. 1, University of Richmond

The highlight of the Shanghai Quartet’s concert with the French clarinetist Michel Lethiec was supposed to be the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, the reigning heavyweight of chamber music with clarinet. Lethiec’s assertive technique, exuberance and big sound presence, however, were better showcased in Franck Villard’s Suite on Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess."

Villard's suite is not the usual greatest-hits medley, but a five-movement piece for clarinet and string orchestra (here reduced to a string quintet) that quotes the dramatic instrumental and choral music from the opera as prominently as it does the familiar songs. The "Jassbo Brown Blues" prelude and the storm and mourning sequences are on equal footings with "Summertime" and "Bess, you is my woman now" in what amounts to a jazz tone poem for classical instruments.

The tonal character and inflections of the solo clarinet, at least as projected by Lethiec, evoke the sly, playful Sportin’ Life more than the opera’s lyrical and romantic voices. The clarinetist played his role broadly, with bluesy slides and hot-jazz exclamations and elaborations, and generated a few chuckles from the audience with his visual gestures.

The string players – Shanghai violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, joined by double-bassist Fred Dole – played with unexpected fluency in this un-homogenized Gershwin (few classical fiddlers get much practice in blues idiom), producing a persuasively earthy, swinging collective sound.

In the very different sound world of Brahms, Lethiec was a bit slow to blend into the ensemble, or perhaps slow to realize how bright wind instruments sound in Camp Concert Hall. Over-prominent and tonally rather glassy in the moody first movement, the clarinetist subsequently reined in his projection and warmed his tone, to especially fine lyrical and atmospheric effect in the adagio. The Shanghai and Lethiec successfully eluded an all-too-common trap in Brahms, emphasizing warmth and lyricism without robbing the performance of forward momentum.

The program opened with the Shanghai revisiting Beethoven in the Quartet in D major, Op. 18, No. 3. The foursome achieved a happy mean of lightness and weight, classical animation and playfulness and romantic portent and soulfulness.