The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had a celebration last night, in addition to a concert. CMS began its fiftieth season, or its golden-anniversary season. Before the playing, there was a lot of talking—including a mayoral proclamation, read by a mayoral aide. Yesterday was, officially, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Day in New York City.

My favorite line from the proclamation? “CMS presents shows all over the world.” I may have the “all over the world” wrong, but I remember the “CMS presents shows.” When you hear “shows,” do you think of Broadway? I do. But plenty of people consider concerts “shows,” and I suppose they are, in a way. (Some concerts, and some musicians, are showier than others.)

The concert, scheduled for 7:30, began at 7:50. (Could have been worse.) The program was all-American, more or less. There was music by three American composers, plus Dvořák’s “American” String Quintet (which is a “viola quintet,” i.e., one for two violas, plus two violins and cello). Dvořák wrote this piece while he was sojourning with the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. The piece is American-inflected, true—and we tend to concentrate on those inflections. But let’s face it: the piece is Bohemian to the core.

In any event, the concert began with music by Harry Burleigh, the black American composer who lived from 1866 to 1949. He is best known for his arrangements of spirituals, including, most famously, “Deep River.” A violinist, Chad Hoopes, and a pianist, Wu Han, played his Southland Sketches. There are four of these, and they do not have titles, or subtitles: they are known by their tempo markings—Andante, Adagio ma non troppo, etc.

Chad Hoopes performs with the Chamber Music Society. Photo: Tristan Cook, courtesy CMS.

This brings up a point about program music, which is to say, music meant to depict something specific. What if these Southland sketches were called “Moon over the Swamp,” “Courtin’ My Girl,” etc.? We would probably think we knew the “meaning” of these pieces. Titles, and other words, play with one’s mind.

I think of these sketches as songs without words—and they are wonderful. Deeply, endearingly American.

Chad Hoopes made a wonderful sound. I am tempted to call it a “violistic” sound, in the lower register. From top to bottom, or bottom to top, it is a fat, juicy, Perlmanesque sound. And Hoopes, along with Wu Han, played the sketches with apt style and appreciation.

The Dvořák quintet is in four movements. Last night, the first movement was a little rough—imperfectly executed—but pleasurable. When players take pleasure in their music-making, as last night’s did, that pleasure is communicated to the audience.

Paul Neubauer performs with the Chamber Music Society. Photo: Tristan Cook, courtesy CMS.

The middle two movements, I’m happy to report, were well-nigh perfect. The second movement, Allegro vivo, amounts to a scherzo. Our players balanced the folkloric and the classical (if I may). They played with both beauty and vitality. The first violinist, Arnaud Sussmann, made a sweet sound and employed judicious portamento. In the next movement, Larghetto, Paul Neubauer sang a fat, juicy viola song. His high standards of musicianship were evident throughout the quintet. The third movement had unusual suspense and, like the second, great beauty.

How about the Finale, that winner? It was fine, just fine—but this music can have more of a current. More electricity. The ending can be a happy delirium, but last night it sounded a little tired, a little routine.

After intermission came some Bernstein. Here, let me quote from an appreciation I wrote of that composer last year. It was his centenary, and we were all writing appreciations.

One of his best pieces, I have always thought, is the first one he ever published: his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1942). It is both French, as so many woodwind pieces were, and American. It is lovely and intelligent—with just enough jazz to make you grin. This sonata will likely remain in the clarinet repertoire.

Yes, it likely will. And it has already lasted a good long time, hasn’t it?

On hand last night to play the sonata were David Shifrin, clarinet, and Gloria Chien, piano. Many years ago, Shifrin was a hotshot, and he’s still a hotshot—a mature one. As I have said many times, he is one of the outstanding instrumentalists of our age.

Gloria Chien performs with the Chamber Music Society. Photo: Tristan Cook, courtesy CMS.

Shifrin has played the Bernstein sonata all his life, surely, and he knows his way around it. Earlier, I spoke of balancing “the folkloric and the classical.” In the Bernstein, Shifrin knows how to balance the jazzy and the classical. And his partner, Chien, was right with him.

For some years—1992 to 2004—Shifrin was the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. After the Bernstein, he was honored by the current artistic directors—Wu Han and David Finckel (husband and wife, or wife and husband)—for his services. Not just his services to CMS but to chamber music at large.

The evening ended with Copland’s Appalachian Spring—the suite from that ballet, played by a chamber orchestra. Thirteen people were on the stage—a baker’s dozen. One of them was Ransom Wilson, the flutist, and the flute has a big role in this piece. Wilson filled it well.

Ransom Wilson performs with the Chamber Music Society. Photo: Tristan Cook, courtesy CMS.

Question: At what point does a conductor become desirable? How big does a chamber ensemble have to be before it would gain something from a conductor? The CMS thirteen held together. And they delivered a fine Appalachian Spring. But, without a conductor, a big chamber group may err on the side of the conservative or moderate. A conductor’s hand over the music can be helpful—can be enlivening, for one thing.

Of course, this depends on the conductor. Whom would I nominate for Appalachian Spring? Bernstein, above all. And then maybe the composer himself, Copland, in second place.

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