April 6, 2014 9:02 pm

Dover Quartet and other artists, Savannah Music Festival, Savannah, Georgia – review

The viola featured prominently in several performances – as did the mandolin
Mandolin player Avi Avital

Mandolin player Avi Avital

It was a good week for the viola at the Savannah Music Festival, and the mandolin did rather well too. Two concerts anchored by the excellent Dover Quartet featured a pair of guest violists: Michael Tree, late of the well remembered Guarneri Quartet and currently celebrating his 80th birthday, and Philip Dukes, another illustrious practitioner who also functioned at times as conductor.

A morning concert of string quintets brought forth the world premiere of The Sun was Chasing Venus by the busy young British composer Charlotte Bray, a fine 15-minute work that was bookended by two pillars – Mendelssohn’s stirring Second Quintet in B flat, Op. 87, and Brahms’s glowing First Quintet in F major, Op. 88 – and came off none the worse in such company. The title’s scurrying participants seemed to take musical embodiment in sections that were alternately incendiary and tranquil. At the outset harsh pairs of chords separated flourishes by individual instruments in rhythmically charged passages; elsewhere, motion slowed to a minimum, without losing tension, as sustained tones underwent subtle changes. Yet within this framework there was much textural variety and ample evidence of the composer’s keen musical ear and stylistic rigour.

Tree, Dukes and Daniel Lee were the supplemental violists in the Mendelssohn, Brahms and Bray, but primary credit goes to the Dover Quartet itself, a splendid ensemble formed in 2008 by 19-year-old students at the Curtis Institute of Music. The Mendelssohn unfolded decisively, with the first movement in particular having breathtaking sweep. Also notable was the warmth the players brought to the first movement of the Brahms and their deftness in dealing with the quintet’s rhythmic surprises.

The viola was more prominently featured at another concert, which began with a polished account of Telemann’s engaging Concerto in G major for Viola and Strings – history’s first viola concerto, said the programme book – by Dukes and an ensemble which included, besides the Dover, the violinist Daniel Hope, a festival artistic director. Frank Bridge’s sonorous Lament for two violas was fervently played by Dukes and Tree. (In spoken remarks Dukes related that when Bridge was told he should write more for the instrument, he quipped, “That’s quite enough for the viola.”) The high point of the concert, which included a diligent reading of Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, was a radiant performance of Elgar’s captivating Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 20, led by Dukes.

The Dover was also present for a concert by the dazzling young mandolin player, Avi Avital, who proved his virtuosity with Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor – the one with the chaconne – and successfully upped the ante by making the experience credible despite the limitations of his tingly instrument. More intriguing, though, was David Bruce’s Cymbeline for mandolin and string quartet (written for Avital last year), a vibrant piece with a golden hue that finds much sonic variety in the instrumental combination. Classical music is just one facet of a festival where you can hear chamber music during the day and bluegrass at night, but it hardly takes second fiddle.


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