McGill and Marlboro musicians at Mandel: red hot chamber music

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Clarinetist Anthony McGill
Clarinetist Anthony McGill
The Marlboro Music Festival, founded in 1951 by Rudolf Serkin and several others, takes place over seven weeks every summer at Marlboro College in southern Vermont. Experienced musicians work with and mentor young talent. They all study and rehearse great works of the chamber music repertoire and offer public performances over five weekends.

A half-century ago Musicians from Marlboro was formed as the touring extension of the festival, so that the work coming out of the summer rehearsals could be heard by a wider audience. This 50th anniversary has seen the talented and popular clarinetist Anthony McGill on tour with other musicians in a program centering on the Clarinet Quartet of Krzysztof Penderecki, written in 1993. In remarks to the audience before the quartet took their seats, McGill explained that Penderecki, who is now 82 years old, had been at Marlboro this past summer and that the musicians had many opportunities to discuss the work and its performance with the composer.

The concert was presented under the aegis of the University of Chicago Presents which typically garners a good crowd at Mandel Hall, but this performance, last Friday night, was better attended than most, almost certainly due to the drawing power of Anthony McGill, currently principal clarinet with the New York Philharmonic. He’s a musician who has put his considerable skills to work in solo, ensemble and orchestral performances. Before he played a note, his informative comments and natural charm had the audience in his pocket.

Penderecki’s Quartet for Clarinet and String Trio is a taut, 15-minute work in four compact movements. The opening Notturno began with solo work from McGill, who had a sinuous and somber sound, setting the mood for this dark and haunting work. Then the spare sound of Daniel Kim’s viola joined the clarinet and only near the end of the movement were violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron and cellist Marcy Rosen heard.

The Scherzo had exciting rushing sound from the strings while the Serenade (marked as a waltz but actually truly bleak), less than two minutes in duration, gave way without pause to the concluding Abschied (Farewell). Here Gendron had a remarkably icy sounding and deeply moving violin solo. McGill’s work was again gripping and the various textures he elicited throughout the piece put his admirable versatility on display.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3 featuring David McCarroll on violin along with violist Kim and cellist Rosen. From the very first, there was palpable intensity accompanied by pleasing surges of sound. The three voice combined beautifully in the Adagio, exhibiting a remarkabe display of unity even when each had very different melodic lines.

Throughout there was unity of purpose with phrasing and dynamics that were always minutely in sync. All told, it was a performance both pretty and technically brilliant.

After the intermission all five musicians gathered to take on the Quintet in B minor for Clarinet and Strings by Brahms. From the beginning there was rich sound and crisp, deliberate punctuation. The only disappointing moment of the evening was the rather ponderous conclusion to the Allegro. But from there, the ensemble moved from strength to strength.

McGill treated the clarinet theme of the second movement with utter simplicity, supported by strings playing with detailed complexity. The pervasive gentleness effortlessly gave way to swirling, whirling music. The second half of the work had lots of action and the finale, a set of variations, showed McGill’s acrobatic abilities as well as his sense of beauty.

It’s common at chamber concerts for the written program or the presenters to ask the audience to remain silent for a few seconds after a work concludes, so that the audience can take in the full power of the music. These Marlboro musicians had no need to make such a request. Their stature at the end of each piece was dramatic and commanding. Members of the audience waited for them to lower their bows before making a sound.

However, at the very end of the Brahms, only a split second after the after the last notes sounded, a cell phone in the audience went off, loudly broadcasting a familiar blues riff. There were gasps of horror throughout Mandel Hall and I’m certain I saw a look of disgust and dismay on the face of one of the players onstage. That special moment when listeners gather up their thoughts and savor what they have just heard was rudely disturbed. Many audience members, as we all eventually streamed into the aisle after several curtain calls, asked me if I’d write about this occurrence, some utterly livid by what had happened. It’s too bad that a splendid evening was marred at the very end by such an unfortunate mistake.

Fans of McGill, UCPresents and the Pacifica Quartet will know that the Brahms was recorded by McGill and Pacifica on Cedille (and performed on the UCPresents series previously). For more info on the CD, recorded in 2013, visit cedillerecords.org.

The next University of Chicago Presents concert features Third Coast Percussion on Fri., Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at International House (1414 E. 59th St.). On the program: Thierry De Mey: Table Music?, Donnacha Dennehy: Surface Tension (Chicago premiere), and Steve Reich: Sextet??. For more info, visit chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.