Two stimulating performances at Mandel Hall

Soprano Sandrine Piau – Sandrine Expilly

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

A large crowd came to hear the American String Quartet at Mandel Hall Friday night in an unusual premiere of a work as much literature as music. Performing, as a reader, with the quartet was joined the award-winning novelist Salman Rushdie, one of the literary giants of our day. The work was The Suite for “The Enchantress of Florence” by Paul Cantelon. This six movement work intersperses long sections of the Rushdie novel with music evocative of the “The Enchantress of Florence.” It was not your ordinary chamber work, and it was all the more fascinating for that.

Cantelon, who has composed classical music as well as music for films, clearly took on the project as a labor of love. His affinity for Rushdie’s novel is clear, and his ability to evoke mood and feeling was evident from the start.

The piece began with a very brief musical introduction. From there it went from a reading of an excerpt from the novel followed by music inspired from the text. The back and forth was hypnotic and beautiful.

Not all writers make effective spoken readers of their own work, but Rushdie does not fit into that category. He was able to take his own carefully crafted words off the page and give them life and vim as he spoke. He’s not an actor, but a reader’s reader, with an ability to keep the rhythm and magic of the written word fully in place as he voiced his own art.

The American String Quartet, made up of violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violist Daniel Avshalomov, and cellist Wolfram Koessel, were clearly committed to the piece and brought virtuosic intensity to the music.

This was much longer than your average new chamber work, about an hour, but it had staying power. Cantelon’s tonal idiom, particularly noteworthy for its mysterious quality, seemed well-suited to the text which inspired him. At times it seemed a tad underscored — one section has the violins playing in unison for long stretches, effectively turning the quartet into a trio, and Cantelon underused the cello almost entirely throughout — yet the final product was entrancing and very pretty.

This was a coup for University of Chicago Presents, as it represented the Midwest premiere of the work and was in fact only the second performance of the work ever, its premiere having been given in New York only days earlier.

The only other work on the program was Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major with the Grosse Fuge. This is one of the towering works in the string quartet repertoire, and it premiered only a year before the composer’s death.

The Americans gave it a reading full of zest and intense musicality. There was punch in the opening Adagio and the following Presto was pleasingly rapid yet never rushed.

The Cavatina was rendered with sensitivity and flair. But it was the Grosse Fuge which was most memorable, bursting with vibrancy and powerful drive.

The only drawback was that, perhaps in order to be symmetrical with the first part of the performance, there was a reading from Beethoven’s own words before the start and between movements four and five. Cantelon was the reader and he hadn’t the skill of elegance of Rushdie, making the spoken words more of an intrusion into the performance than an asset.

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A week earlier French Soprano Sandrine Piau made her Chicago debut at Mandel Hall. University of Chicago Presents made an inspired choice in bringing her to Hyde Park. Along with her pianist Susan Manoff, Piau gave a striking performance of art songs linked together by the idea of dreams, in a program entitled “Après un Reve.”

Piau is an artist with great interpretive skill. Her singing was never flashy but rather always inspired. Her voice is not large, yet she deploys it so artfully, it is tremendously persuasive and convincing. In a hall the size of Mandel, she made the music intimate and personal.

She had gorgeous floating high notes, and a stylish narrative sense. She was equally captivating with French composers (Chausson, Poulenc, and Debussy) and German (Mendelssohn, Berg and Richard Strauss). She clearly knows her own strengths, selecting songs that she is able to spin into fine silk.

She had a truly splendid collaborator in Manoff, a pianist who was completely in sync with Piau in rhythm, timing and spirit. Manoff was a delight in the jingle-jangle passages in the Mendelssohn, and whispery and wispy in the Debussy. She played with grace and care to the music. Together, these women offered a marvelous evening of art song which the Mandel Hall audience greatly appreciated, as did I.