Frankly Music puts Levy, clarinet to the fore
Frank Almond's chamber series opens with guests from the Milwaukee Symphony, with principal clarinetist Todd Levy featured.
Frank Almond put clarinetist Todd Levy at center stage Monday night, at the opener of his Frankly Music series.
Levy joined violinists Almond and Ilana Setapen, violist Wei-Ting Kuo and cellist Susan Babini — all colleagues in the Milwaukee Symphony — in Brahms’ very late and very great Clarinet Quintet, Opus 115. Their rich resonance, sweet and consistent portamento, gentle surge in the phrases, vibrato that lapped live wavelets against the harmonies made for a Romantic interpretation that brimmed with Brahmsian nostalgia.
The warmth was palpable, but Brahms is more complicated that an evening at the fireside. He lulls you one moment, startles you the next, or shifts moods subtly but substantially. The five players showed hair-trigger sensitivity to Brahms’ emotional shadings, which can be as ineffable and fleeting as a cloud passing over the sun. In the last movement, for example, Brahms ends his set of variations with a sort of barcarolle, a charming murmur gently propelled by pizzicati. Then Babini drew a sustained tone from her cello; the flow continued, but the hint of minor mode in that single note changed the sense of the scene. A cloud passed over the sun.
Brahms’ rhythm is always sophisticated, but the rhythm in the Clarinet Quintet is especially exquisite. Twos against threes about in the texture, as do displacements of one voice or another. Monday, you could feel the voices slip and slide this way and that against one another and the beat. They can depict a certain Romantic restlessness and vague yearning, or they can suggest the varied but smooth flow of time. Levy often carried the most lyrical melodies, including the soaring love song in the Adagio, which seemed to glide like a graceful cutter across the gently rocking and sliding currents in the strings.
Pianist Jeannie Yu joined Levy in a rare reading of the Clarinet Sonata, Opus 28 (1945), by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), a Polish Jew who fled to Russia early in World War II. Weinberg — a new name to me — ended up having a long career in Moscow and a long friendship with Shostakovich.
The sonata commences with a clarinet soliloquy, a meander that slowly gathers itself into a stroll when the piano enters. Much of this piece, that opening theme especially, has a Chaplinesque quality, of winsome comedy in a carnival setting. A more lyrical theme crops up, and then Weinberg takes a few minutes to weave it and the strolling them together in a clever assortment of twists and turns. The jauntier second movement maintains the sentiment of the opener, as our clarinet protagonist embarks on new adventures, some a little scarier than others as bi-tonal dark clouds roil up in the piano. But the existential crisis passes and we end in sunshine.
The Adagio finale opens with long, pedal-sustained arpeggios on mildly adventurous chords in the piano. Yu built them up nicely over quite a long time; Levy entered at their peak and tumbled down virtuosically into a linear theme that developed like a mutating bacterium. The piano came more and more into play, again with long slow arpeggios. Some piano chords meshed with the clarinet harmonically, some didn’t. The remainder of the piece was a search for common ground. It ended when the two parties found it, with the piano playing something like the clarinet material and vice-versa.
Almond returned to play Bartók’s Contrasts (1938) with Yu and Levy. It sounds like Bartók, with surreal takes on a Verbunkos military dance, a chorale and a devil’s hoedown of a finale. The trick to playing this difficult piece is to create the illusion of crazed abandon while remaining utterly in control. The players, Levy and Almond especially, did exactly that and gave us all a wild ride.
Display image on Arts and Culture page courtesy of Conn & Selmer company.
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