Musicians from Marlboro

I attend a lot of good chamber music concerts, but very few great ones. It’s hard to predict in advance which ones will be top of the line, because so many elements are involved. The musicians have to be good, of course, but even the best musicians can’t always produce the best results. This fall, for instance, I attended a performance of the Tetzlaff Quartet that was merely pleasant, even though Christian Tetzlaff is absolutely my favorite violinist in the world. Other factors—the programming, the nature of the collaboration, the mood of the audience (not to mention my own particular mood)—need to be just right for the experience to be transcendent. So I am always delighted when I happen on one of these occasions.

Last Sunday afternoon, the Musicians from Marlboro, presented at Hertz Hall under the auspices of Cal Performances, gave me everything I could have wanted. I would not have predicted this. The ensemble is not a long-term group, but a label applied to whatever musicians happen to have gathered for the latest Marlboro tour. The program (Beethoven, Penderecki, Brahms) looked nice but not particularly surprising. I was expecting pleasant. I got glorious.

The five musicians assembled for this concert—Emilie-Anne Gendron and David McCarroll on violin,  Daniel Kim on viola, Marcy Rosen on cello, and the amazing Anthony McGill on clarinet—were all more than up-to-snuff. But it was their collaboration that was stellar. Both the Penderecki and the Brahms featured a clarinet intertwining with strings, and in large part due to McGill’s tremendous breath control, the reed instrument neither overshadowed the rest nor faded beneath them. It was as if the clarinet sound and the viola sound (in the Penderecki), or the clarinet and the cello (in the Brahms), had been designed from the very beginning to go together, as twins and equals. And these musicians furthered that achievement by pausing or diminishing their volume or speeding up in such perfect unison that the five separate players felt almost like the digits of one hand—perfectly coordinated, perfectly matched.

The program, too, was extremely well thought out. It deployed the five players in increasing numbers, from Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor to Penderecki’s Quartet for Clarinet and String Trio to Brahms’s familiar and beautiful Clarinet Quintet in B minor. To jump forward in time from Beethoven’s lovely 1798 piece to Penderecki’s profound 1993 work was not at all a leap too far; and to move backward to the magisterial Brahms at the end made all the sense in the world. Each piece was played with tremendous feeling and no showiness whatsoever; the musicians were serious but not stiff, intense but not florid. They knew their business, and their business was to allow each work’s own grand expressiveness to emerge intact.

I have listened to that Brahms quintet a hundred times, at least, but I have never heard it played this well before. And the rest of the audience seemed to feel the same way. That was part of the pleasure of the concert: the sense that we were all poised together—breathlessly, silently—listening with all our might and knowing we were getting something very special.

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