Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Ensemble Appassionata

Daniel Myssyk conducting
with Richard Raymond, piano
Jan. 21, Virginia Commonwealth University

Daniel Myssyk, known in these parts as conductor of the VCU Symphony Orchestra, is known in his native Canada as co-founder and music director of Ensemble Appassionata, a string orchestra based in Montreal. Later this week, Myssyk will lead his two orchestras and guests in the U.S. premiere of the “Ben Seni Variations” by VCU’s Doug Richards.

Over the weekend, Ensemble Appassionata and pianist Richard Raymond performed in the university’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series.

Meat-and-potato repertory, long the series’ standard diet, has given way to more fibrous fare in several of this season’s Rennolds programs. This was one of them: A liver-and-kale first half of works by Paul Hindemith and the Canadian composer André Prévost, with Chopin’s “Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise brilliante” and Dvořák’s Serenade for strings as post-intermission desserts.

Raymond is one of Canada’s most celebrated pianists, and showed why in his performances of the Chopin and Hindemith’s “The Four Temperaments” (1940), introduced as a ballet score for George Ballanchine, now usually heard in its concert version, a kind of sinfonia concertante for piano and strings.

“The Four Temperaments” is a set of variations of three themes on the ancient concept of “four humors” of human personality: the melancholy, the sanguine, the phlegmatic and the choleric. Hindemith’s treatments of these qualities are, to my ears at least, deceptive and/or confusing. His notion of melancholia strikes me as rather sanguine, and his phlegmatic music sounds jolly and animated. The piece is more easily absorbed as an abstract work in neo-classical style.

Raymond reveled in its often elaborate keyboard figurations and interplay between the piano and string soloists and small ensembles; he was especially effective in the fourth, “choleric” variations’ extended conversation between piano and string quartet and quintet. The pianist also brought out the wry humor of Hindemith’s see-sawing between classical and romantic piano rhetoric. And he proved to be a fluent and sensitive interpreter of Chopin in the andante and polonaise.

Ensemble Appassionata delivered a stylish, if rather mellow, performance of the Dvořák serenade, and a concentrated and energetic reading of Prévost’s Scherzo for strings (1960), an unusually accessible example of 12-tone compositional technique driven by off-center rhythms and sliding string effects.

Daniel Myssyk conducts Ensemble Appassionata, the VCU Symphony and guests in Doug Richards’ “Ben Seni Variations” and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony at 8 p.m. Jan. 24 in VCU’s Singleton Arts Center, Grove Avenue at Harrison Street. Tickets: $15. Details: (804) 828-6776;