Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: 'White Nights' 1

May 13, First Unitarian Universalist Church

The Richmond Festival of Music, the springtime chamber-music series directed by cellist James Wilson, opened “White Nights,” a four-day sampler of works from Scandinavia and Russia with a semi-neglected masterpiece by Sergei Prokofiev and rarely performed quartets by Anton Arensky and Carl Nielsen.

The Prokofiev was the Sonata in D major, Op. 94, for flute and piano, a work that predates and vividly pre-echoes the Fifth Symphony. Mary Boodell, principal flutist of the Richmond Symphony and a regular participant in this festival, joined pianist Rieko Aizawa in a performance that nicely contrasted the melancholy lyricism of the opening movement and andante with the edgy, rather ominous energy of the piece’s dance-inspired sections.

Boodell was unerring in her phrasing and deft shading of of colors and dynamics; while bringing out the energy and technical displays this pianist-composer gives his instrument, Aizawa took care not to crowd or overbalance the flute.

Arensky’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 35, for violin, viola and two cellos received a reading of rich sonority and high-romantic expression from violinist Carmit Zori, violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellists Wilson and Philip Borter. The foursome produced a surprisingly big sound, even in the introduction and subsequent sections played with mutes, and a fittingly soulful one in music that quotes Russian Orthodox chant and a rather somber theme from a song by Tchaikovsky.

The musicians emphasized the dark, weighty qualities of the first two movements, making their burst in brilliance in the sprinting finale (built around yet another Russian folk tune, “Slava”) all the more striking.

Nielsen’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 13, for the usual complement of strings, is an early work, conventionally romantic in its thematic development and harmonic language, but with hints of the “progressive tonality” and quirky, bumptious humor of the Danish master in maturity. An exuberant performance by Zori, Huang, Wilson and violinist Jesse Mills made the piece sound like Grieg crossbred with Dvořák, with the offspring favoring the latter.

The same four fiddlers played the string-quartet version of Arvo Pärt’s “Da pacem Domine” (originally for choir) with stark clarity. The church sanctuary was in near-darkness for the performance, underlining the music’s austerity and otherworldliness.

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with a free performance of Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons,” with readings from the composer’s letters, at noon May 14 in the Gellman Room of the Richmond Public Library main branch, First and Franklin streets. Further ticketed concerts are at 7:30 p.m. May 14 at Wilton House Museum, 215 S. Wilton Road, and 7:30 p.m. May 16 at First Unitarian, 1000 Blanton Ave. at the Carillon. Tickets: $25. Details: (804) 519-2098;