Published March 23. 2013 9:00PM Updated March 23. 2013 11:45PM
Old Lyme — Sometimes it feels like the old church will simply fly apart from the energy at a Musical Masterworks concert. Saturday evening, six string players armed with millions of dollars' worth of instruments and with priceless talent and drive turned up the intensity in that acoustic marvel of a hall for a tour of the musical world in three stops.
That the crowd in the First Congregational Church burst to its feet at the final notes of Tchaikovsky's string sextet "Souvenir de Florence" to end the concert should come as no surprise; it's one of the sure-fire finales in the chamber music repertoire. That the crowd also was on its feet for a 1998 composition based on Chinese folk music is a tribute to the spirited and committed performance.
The concert will be repeated at 3 p.m. today.
The six string players included four first-timers here, each with a well-established career as a chamber musician and soloist: violinist Amy Schwartz-Moretti, violists Che-Hung Chen and Max Mandel, and cellist Peter Stumpf. Joining the newcomers were violinist Jennifer Frautschi and the series' artistic director, cellist Edward Arron.
In his introductions, Arron pointed out that both violinists were playing Stradivarius instruments and cellist Stumpf was playing a 1664 cello made by Nicola Amati, Stradivarius' teacher. Add to the mix Chen's 1756 Testore viola, and Arron seemed a bit chagrined to be holding his relatively new Joseph Panormo cello — made in 1790.
The juxtaposition of very old instruments and very new ideas was at the center of the prolific Chinese-American composer Chen Yi's "Sound of the Five" for String Quintet, the central piece on the program. "She's considered a Chinese Bartok," Arron said of the composer, "in the way she incorporates folk music from her tradition into Western styles."
And, in the remarkable sonic variety and sizzle of the four-movement work, the performers incorporated string techniques associated with Bartok, such as the Bartok snap, and a range of techniques associated with 20th century string quartet writing. Each of the four movements is intended to evoke musical memories of traditional Chinese instruments, and the effect was mesmerizing at times. The violinists conjured the two-stringed violin, the erhu, by using harmonic glissandi, and snaps and popping pizzicati evoked a ch'in, a Chinese hammer zither.
Yet it wasn't mimicry. Chen Yi transformed her folk music as surely as Dvorak drew on Bohemian tunes. The inner movements spun a beautiful lyricism, and the final movement, Flower Drums in Dance, was driven by churning unison stops, as akin to string writing by Russian Alfred Schnittke as to any Chinese music.
No matter what the score's provenance might have been, the audience loved it.
The program opened with a remarkably high-key, vividly drawn performance of Mozart's String Quintet in D Major, K. 593. Here Frautschi, in the first violin chair, set the tone from the start. Her opening allegro burst from the probing larghetto like a laser beam, all energy and light, and even in the moving adagio, her leading voice was more emotive than yearning.
This late Mozart masterpiece contains some of his densest contrapuntal writing, yet the ensemble never bogged down, the voices of the two violas, in particular, clearly drawn and adding great depth to the developments.
The Tchaikovsky sextet closed the program, and the violinists (and violists) swapped seats. And much like Frautschi in the Classical era quintet, Schwartz-Moretti set the tone for the Romanticism, playing with a hint of the 19th century glissando slides and an obvious enthusiasm for the interplay.
This music is as sunny and cheerful as any from Tchaikovsky, combining his gifts of showmanship and melody, and the six players attacked it with a delight that was infectious. At times, it sounded as if a full string orchestra were playing.
The interplay became palpable, Frautschi shooting sidelong glances at Schwartz-Moretti, Schwartz-Moretti grinning at cellist Stumpf in their cantabile exchanges, and a fully energized violist Mandel seemingly urging on his confreres in the closing pages.
This is why live concerts will never be replaced by earbuds.