Sunday , May 26 2024
Cassatt String Quartet
Photo by Dario Acosta

Concert Review: Cassatt String Quartet with Trombonist Haim Avitsur

Just a month ago I had the opportunity to hear a wonderful collaboration between the Cassatt String Quartet and several Japanese composers and instrumentalists. Just now, on Saturday, the Bethany Arts Community in Ossining, NY featured another unusual juxtaposition of instruments featuring the Cassatt, with trombonist Haim Avitsur joining the quartet in two modern pieces for the uncommon lineup of string quartet and trombone.

The concert also included a piece composed for the Cassatt by Victoria Bond and a classic of the string quartet repertoire, Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 1.

Revving up with Beethoven

Opening with the Beethoven was a good idea, as it was the only familiar work on the program and revealed the Cassatt’s many strengths. The presence of excellent substitute violist Dov Scheindlin seemed to affect them not at all as they launched into the first movement with a light, almost playful touch. The agonized minor-key section made an effective contrast. Their playing was worthy of the crisp inventiveness that made the Early Quartets, and especially this one, a world-shaking evolution in Beethoven’s work and in music generally.

The second movement too began in restrained fashion, pictorial, with first violinist Muneko Otani leading the development with limber assuredness. Beethoven’s stormy passions made their impact, resounding through the surprisingly decent acoustics of the black box-style space, capping quite a stunner of a performance. (This may be an almost irrelevant aside, but watching the animated cellist Gwen Krosnick play makes a Cassatt Quartet concert worth the price of admission almost by itself.)

A distinctly serious – in a good way – interpretation of the Scherzo set up an energized take on the finale. Smudged by just a grain or two of muddiness in the presto passages – or was that just the squarish acoustics? – the performance reveled in Beethoven’s big finish, delighting the suburban crowd, which included many unfamiliar with this music.

A Sorrowful Elegy

On that tip, “Look, a saxophone,” someone near me said when Haim Avitsur appeared with his trombone. The ensuing performance of “Elegy” by Joan Tower, for trombone and string quartet, showed Avitsur’s skill at modulating the color and level of his instrument – which, for the record, was definitely a trombone. It did the same for the string players.

Trombonist Haim Avitsur
Haim Avitsur

But that did not make this an enjoyable piece, quite the opposite. In fact, Avitsur had given it an odd introduction: Some years ago, when he informed the composer that he had been preparing and performing it (with another string quartet), Tower disowned it.

She relented and made some revisions, and the result is what we heard at Bethany. Revisions or no, it was a painful listen. Knowing the title (“Elegy”), it was easy to identify representations of a tolling bell. But as a whole, the drones, howling harmonies and tight dissonances were more intrusive than expressive.

Muted Colors, Enchanting Sounds

I was relieved to see that Victoria Bond’s Blue & Green Music for string quartet was next. Two movements of it, anyway. I’ve always liked Bond’s music and this was no exception. Inspired by a Georgia O’Keefe painting, it includes a fugue, which develops via an initially gentle flow and builds a two-note motto gradually into something like a scary-movie soundtrack. Daring colors came gave the other movement an air of enchantment.

Avitsur then returned for another piece (yes, there is another) for string quartet and trombone. “Monuments” is a late work by the prolific Adolphus Hailstork. I’ve heard some of Hailstork’s choral music and was interested to hear what he worked up with this lineup.

The piece was inspired by various U.S. monuments, but whether these are human-made structures or the park-like National Monuments, or both, is, or should be, up to the listener.

I found the music more suggestive of natural vistas, actually – sky, mountains, rivers. Some of the strains seemed to evoke (or quote) folk songs and Native American chants. But the quintet’s fiery and committed playing didn’t make the piece very appealing to me. There was a good deal of drama, and glowing, expansive melodies. But the trombone and strings didn’t mesh as nicely as I had hoped they would. And amid odd, angular harmonies the episodic music didn’t seem to hang together.

The Cassatt String Quartet should be commended for seeking out unconventional collaborations, even if they don’t always bear the sweetest of fruit. It was also nice to finally see a concert at Bethany, which has been hosting cultural events since it took over a former part of the Maryknoll religious complex a few years ago. I would be happy to attend the next time fine musicians bring their instruments – saxophones, trombones, or whatever – to this friendly spot in the northern New York City suburbs.

Visit the Bethany Arts Community online for information about upcoming events, and see the Cassatt String Quartet’s calendar for their upcoming concerts.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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