No longer able to schedule their concerts in a gallery (Rodman Hall has conflicting plans), Niagara’s finest chamber ensemble has to find new digs for its eclectic programs. Accordingly, the season opener found the “Brahms Cycle” continuing at Knox Presbyterian Church. Like its former venue, the house piano (Baldwin, previously Steinway) has long past seen its salad days (yet David Louie’s customary magic made the tinny-in-the-middle-register instrument sound much, much better than it is).
Acoustically, the tall rectangular space has more ring than Brock’s latest acquisition, but it took almost an entire movement for the players to adjust to reverb and resonance once the pews were populated by their hugely supportive fans. Sadly, the daunting process of new venue, artistic/logistical hurdles must immediately be jumped again: the three remaining main series offerings will move a few blocks east to St. Barnabas Anglican Church in January.
The two-work program held a happy coincidence and a mammoth musical challenge.
Just five days back, Mendelssohn’s magnificent D Minor Piano Trio was given a marvellously rich reading in Buffalo. What are the odds of two programmers having the same good sense within a few hours and a 40-minute drive?
Of the two accounts, the Niagara performance couldn’t match the wisdom and experience of Charles Haupt & Co., but did outshine Brahms’ emotionally charged, thoughtfully crafted essay for piano, violin and cello.
Overall, the Mendelssohn displayed a fine balance and sense of style. Margaret Gay provided compelling, long melodic lines and a dulcet pizzicato that beautifully underscored her colleagues, notably in the “Andante con moto tranquillo,” which moved forward with purpose before managing a nearly perfect “adieu.” Louie led a merry chase in the “Scherzo” and its playfulness seemed the perfect complement to the young children whose mother was content to let them rattle their bags, chat and create scratchy art works until stared down by your scribe who continues to pine for true silence within an appreciative throng. After a somewhat rough-and-ready opening, the “Finale” exploded into the sanctuary; its secular technical wizardry riveted everyone’s ears until the thunderous last hurrah was declaimed.
After the break, Julie Baumgartel and Gay launched the C Major Trio with a confidence that augured well for the task at hand (Baumgartel added much poise and insight to both works). They soared within reach of the heavens and only needed complete unanimity of phrase, intonation and power of statement to lift the result from good to great.
The Hungarian theme and variations, with its moments of ethereal, “floatando” bliss and echoes of the first string sextet, was topped off with the finest diminuendo ever heard in Niagara—even the customary cougher was silenced by the deeply personal release from the master’s gift for development. That set the stage for the fleeting “Danse Macabre” “Scherzo” and its ever-so-lush “Trio”—little wonder the combined effect became Nature’s cue to send reflected sunshine through the stained glass windows, adding literal reinforcement to the musical warmth.
The last movement—a heady study in contrasts—saw Louie’s sheaves of bravura triplets cascading more easily off the page than the strings. Its orchestral scope found able proponents in Baumgartel and Gay who hunkered down “into the string” and, having created more drama than was perhaps called for in the two-against-three tension, took fire with the piano and raced home to the much-appreciated conclusion. JWR