Reviews of New Classical Music Series at Rhythmix Cultural Works

The New Esterhazy Quartet, photo by R. Beach

Review by Kathy Lautz

The New Esterhazy Quartet provided a lively and convincing inaugural concert for the Rhythmix Cultural Works’ new Classical music concert series. The quartet, consisting of Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss on violins, Anthony Martin playing viola and providing color commentary, and William Skeen on cello, made a lilting and lively interpretation of the Haydn Quartet Op. 71, No. 1 to begin the program.

They were then joined by special guest Stephen Schultz, on Baroque flute, for Boccherini Flute Quintet Op. 21, No. 1. Mr. Schultz began with interesting explanations of the difference between a Baroque flute and a modern orchestral flute. His playing was relaxed and free from tension, even in the fastest movements.

After intermission, a Johannes Spech Quartet in G minor Op. 2 No. 1 was admirably executed following more humorous introductory commentary from Anthony Martin with stories about Johannes Spech’s life as a student of Haydn. The program closed with another delightful Boccherini Flute Quintet, in G major, Op. 21, No. 5.  

The  Rhythmix performance venue is small, seating perhaps 100 people. The brick-walled, cozy open room can be laid out in standard seating fashion, or any number of ways, but for this new series they wisely chose to create a cabaret feel, with groups of four chairs around small tables. Concession snacks and beverages available downstairs in the Rhythmix Art Gallery were meant to be enjoyed at the tables during the performance, dispelling any potential “stuffiness” that sometimes can accrue to performances of classical music.

The violist Anthony Martin has the enviable gift of explaining the music and the baroque instruments in a knowledgeable, yet friendly and humorous fashion, which was perfect for the intimate setting, where the music itself actually benefitted a great deal from the period instruments, strung with gut strings and played with baroque style bows. The smaller instruments, two violins and the viola were indeed authentic 17th and 18th century instruments, still in daily use. The cello, while made in the modern era, is a faithful reproduction of a smaller, more rounded baroque cello.

The sound of these instruments is, yes, somewhat softer in volume than the modern orchestral violin. The players compensate for a lighter sound with a strong rhythmic emphasis and dynamic interplay that is a hallmark of its historically informed performance practice. Haydn composed a prodigious number of string quartets for his patron, Count Esterhazy, and this “chamber music” repertoire was composed not for the large symphony concert hall, but for small groups of people being entertained in the various noble houses and family drawing rooms of European nobility. So the acoustic would not have been as full and resonant as a cathedral or concert hall, and the settings would have been small and intimate, exactly analogous to our tables, chairs, drinks and snacks at the Rhythmix’ unique and warm performance space.

My seatmate at the front row table turned out to be a long time fan of the New Esterhazy Quartet, having been to “at least a couple dozen” of their performances. And I can see why she is such a fan. They were great! They kicked off the Classical Friday Nights at Rhythmix in a most admirable fashion. The house was full, they ran out of programs, and had to pull out extra chairs. These are all good signs for this budding concert series, and if the following three concerts are as good as this one, Alameda will have for itself a jewel of a series that I can only hope will expand to even more live classical concerts in the future.

Kathy Lautz is a choral singer and vocal soloist for Listen for Life.

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Review by Bettina Gray

Rhythmix Cultural Works’ opening concert of their new classical series provided “music to soothe the (overly) civilized beast”.  Coming in from a cold and rainy winter night to a welcoming and friendly concert space, and hearing The New Esterhazy Quartet with special guest flautist, Stephen Shultz on historic period instruments, was just the kind of musical and social counterpoint needed against a week of frenzied modernity.

This was true "retro" music -- as in 350 years retro.  Period instruments from the 1700's playing Haydn, Spech and Boccherini.  These were the instruments audiences heard 350 years ago when the composers were alive.  The question was, could today's audience have "period" ears?  Could they listen to instruments from 300 years ago and accept, even appreciate, the difference in sound?  The violins, viola and cello of the New Esterhazy are strung with gut strings, not metal and are tuned to a slightly lower tone than is the modern tuning.  These details, along with differences in bow construction and instrument handling, create definite changes to the sound. It’s not unlike the difference between an acoustic guitar and a steel-string or electric guitar.  The two Boccherini quintets also featured Shultz playing a wooden flute, which is closer in sound to a recorder than to our modern metal orchestral flutes. Clearly, from their warm reactions, the full-house audience was eager for this kind of sound.  We find that very encouraging.   

The modern musical world, whether jazz, pop or symphonic, blasts audiences with digitally enhanced, pitch-controlled, increasingly strident and electronically-modulated sound.  Many listeners get their music only by a flip of some digital switch and do not even realize that many of today's performers do not know how to deliver or produce their “music” without artificial digital pitch-correction and amplification. These modern day performers do not need to worry about diction or pitch because the electronics will take care of any inconsistencies.  So, what an absolutely refreshing experience it was on Friday night in Alameda to lend our ears to skilled pros, needing no props, playing music that was charming in its symmetry and balance.  In this context the musicianship (of all artists involved) was a particularly pleasing treat.  Immediately the audience knew we were in skilled hands.  The pitch was entirely fine on its own (no digital enhancements needed!) in spite of the fact that the older instruments are notoriously harder to control, pitch-wise.  The balance, the rhythmic nuances, and the interactions between instrumental players-  all there.  

The quartet's playing was that of a group of top-notch, experienced musicians who know each other well and enjoy playing together; their main repertoire being all 68 Haydn quartets.  Violist Anthony Martin interacted delightfully with the audience, introducing the music with a friendly and unpretentious ease, explaining the context of the music as it was originally played.

This is music a younger generation ought to revisit.  It’s just the opposite of the stereotype assumptions made about "classical" music.  Give it a try: classical music without any (unnecessary) electronic props and in an informal and accessible setting. And kudos to Rhythmix for having the vision to create this new series, amidst the many ethnic and multicultural music styles they continue to share with such success!

Bettina Gray is the multimedia music composer and teacher for Listen for Life.

 

The next performance in the Classical Music Series at Rhythmix will feature Ensemble Alcatraz on Friday, Feb. 12.

See http://rhythmix.org/events/ensemble-alcatraz.html for more information.