Review by Scott Cantrell, The Dallas Morning News - 9:57 AM on Jul 31, 2023
A fine finale for this year’s Basically Beethoven Festival
Piano quartets by Mozart and Schumann got spirited but subtly inflected performances.
Even “name” chamber music ensembles, let alone ad-hoc groups of “name” musicians assembled for individual concerts, don’t reliably play with the care and polish demonstrated by five area musicians Sunday afternoon at Moody Performance Hall.
This was the last of July’s four Basically Beethoven Festival concerts, presented by Fine Arts Chamber Players. Piano quartets by Mozart (in G minor, K. 478) and Schumann (his only one, in E-flat major, Op. 47) included violinist Jen Betz from the Fort Worth Symphony and Theodore Harvey, associate principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony. Joining them were violist Rachel McDonald and pianists Alex McDonald (also artistic director of the Basically Beethoven Festival, and Rachel’s husband, performing the Mozart) and Lewis Warren, Jr. (in the Schumann). The “Rising Star” prelude recital featured the amazing young pianist Guanjie “Tony” Lu.
Even with prominent chamber ensembles these days, strings are too often guilty of overplaying, the tone going harsh, the tuning less precise. At no point was that an issue Sunday. Both the Mozart and Schumann were sensibly scaled to the music from ages well before the sonic assaults of our 21st-century lives.
Dynamics and balances were carefully controlled, lines nicely shaped, motifs subtly tapered. Phrase logically led on to phrase, by extension or in contrast. There were high spirits where appropriate, gentle reflections elsewhere. And all this was the work of musicians put together just for this concert.
The two sides of Schumann’s personality were evident but unforced. The quartet’s somber opening was played with aptly restrained vibrato; the slow movement yearned in melody and harmony. The scherzo and finale whizzed by with impressively taut coordination.
During a rest in the slow movement, inaudibly to us, Harvey managed to retune his low C string for the unusual B-flat Schumann calls for. But he might have explained the extended retuning then required before the finale.
Under the circumstances, it was fine that Lu, a ninth grader at St. Mark’s School of Texas, only played one movement of each of two sonatas, but the printed program should have told us we’d hear only the opening Allegro of Beethoven’s E-flat major Sonata (Op. 31, No. 3). Lu demonstrated a sure command of proportion and rhetoric as well as technique — even the music’s playfulness.
He set himself a formidable challenge with the last movement, Chorale and Variations, of the 1948 Piano Sonata by the late French composer Henri Dutilleux. But from the defiant octaves proclaiming the theme through variations variously wrapping it in boogie-woogie rhythms, cascades of glitters, rustles and shimmers, he made a gripping case for some powerful music.
It’s great that the Basically Beethoven Festival draws many people who don’t ordinarily go to classical music concerts. This could be a subtle teaching opportunity. Maybe a friendly announcement something like this:
“YouTube and Spotify reduce everything these days to single ‘songs,’ but some classical works are in multiple movements best enjoyed without interruption. We hope our performances will make you want to applaud, but you might find the music works best if you hold your applause until all movements have been played.”