Review: Chamber Music Society

Sept. 30, Perkinson Recital Hall, University of Richmond

Historians routinely face the challenge of telling the stories of societies that no longer exist, drawing on sketchy or incomplete written records, isolated testimonies and folklore or legend. Artists have freer rein in this kind of storytelling; imagination and emotional or spiritual engagement can fill in the factual gaps.

So it is with “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” by Osvaldo Golijov. Born in 1960 in Argentina, Golijov is the child of middle-class Romanian Jewish émigrés; in his 20s, he spent three years studying in Israel. This composition, dating from 1994, was inspired by the writings of the medieval French rabbi and scholar Yitzhak Saggi Nehor, known as Isaac the Blind; but its musical references and implied narrative form a sound picture of life in the now-vanished ghettos and shtetls of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Performing “Dreams and Prayers” requires great technical virtuosity, but performers face the greater challenge of leaping across a historical and cultural chasm to recreate the spirit of a time and place remembered by pitifully few survivors of the pogroms of the late-19th and early 20th centuries and the subsequent Holocaust of the 1940s.

Golijov made this leap masterfully – “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” is likely to be remembered as his greatest work – and a cast of musicians mustered for the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia’s season-opening concert brought the piece to life vividly and potently.

Chief among them was clarinetist Bryan Crumpler, the protagonist of this musical epic. Alternating among B flat, E flat and bass clarinets, often played at extremes of their ranges, Crumpler sounded totally absorbed in musical characterization and tonal scene-painting, from wildly extroverted klezmer dances to mournful cantorial chants.

His string-quartet collaborators – violinists Kobi Malkin and Brendon Elliott, violist Max Mandel and cellist James Wilson (artistic director of the Chamber Music Society) – were comparably attuned to Golijov’s score, whether impersonating the instruments of a klezmer band or conveying the rich atmospherics of the piece.

The same cast of artists followed “Dreams and Prayers” with Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115. This was a canny choice, seemingly a German-romantic contrast to Golijov’s modernist-folkloric music, but emotionally and stylistically complementary – a reminder of Brahms’ immersion in the amalgam of Jewish, Gypsy/Roma and Hungarian influences that deeply informed the musical vernacular of 19th-century Central and Eastern Europe.

This late work of Brahms is generally heard as among his most sonically mellow and emotionally melancholy compositions. Those qualities came through in this performance; but so did often-underplayed subtleties in his writing, especially for the strings – the Virginia-bred Elliott, playing first violin, was especially sensitive to dynamics and phrasing – and the interplay between strings and clarinet.

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