There was no shortage of champagne to welcome early-arriving audience members to the Mainly Mozart Festival Chamber Players’ opening program Thursday (June 4) at Balboa Park’s Timken Museum. As the modest concert of chamber music for strings progressed, I wondered why the music lacked the effervescence of the libations that preceeded the program.
Certainly the caliber of the evening’s performers was not in question. Violinists Martin Chalifour and Mary Bérard as well as cellist Ronald Thomas have been leading lights of the Mainly Mozart Festival since its early days, and their musical acuity has only increased over the years. But given Thomas’s tepid programming, Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor, Op. 9., No. 2, and Mendelssohn’s String Quintet in A Major, Op. 18, my attention wandered, scanning the classical scenes depicted in the impressive tapestries that lined the museum’s walls. Instead of focusing on the classical music wafting gently through the high-ceilinged chamber.
If only Stravinsky’s program-opening “Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet” had been the harbinger of surprise and fervid invention that was to come. Boris Allakhverdyan, a very proper, young Armenian clarinetist, gently tapered the wistful arcs of the first piece with a subdued, mellow timbre. As each piece expanded into more active figuration and livlier tempos, his color brightened appropriately, although he maintained his immaculate articulation even through the ecstatic finale.
Violist Mark Holloway joined Bérard and Thomas in The Beethoven C Minor String Trio, and their account proved fleet and thoughtfully balanced. Bérard’s warm, cantabile themes in the slow movement made the strongest impression, and her engaging duos with Holloway brightened the texture considerably. But this early Beethoven piece is more of an exercise, a rewarding diversion for string players, but not a deep piece that moves the listener to profound thoughts.
For Mendelssohn’s String Quintet in A Major, violinist Chalifour and violist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu joined the trio performers in a polished account of a work from the composer’s teen-age years. Growing up in a properous household in Berlin, where leading musicians performed regular Sunday concerts, Mendelssohn experienced a level of comfort and privilege few composers of his time knew firsthand, and this serene, untroubled quintet reflects that ethos. Chalifour set the standard for elegant phrasing and buoyant, ingratiating string color, and his colleagues followed his lead with alacrity. Although the work asks little of its listeners, the players gave most generously.