Opening the UW International Chamber Music Series there, they gave a splendidly-played, excellently-designed program for their not-so-usual combination of instruments of works by Mozart, Bartok, Stravinsky and William Bolcom.
From the first strains of Mozart's Trio in E-Flat, the "Kegelstatt," for viola, clarinet and piano, there was a notable equality of balance between the players. Being alto instruments, the clarinet and viola can easily be overwhelmed by a piano with the lid full up, but never did that happen. A warm tone with plenty of energy but without force pervaded this elegant performance in which Shifrin's smooth almost buttery clarinet carried most of the top voice.
This was the only work from the classical era, and the musicians went straight to the 20th century for the remainder of the program. There was no jarring dissimilarity. All the modern works they played are melodic ones full of vitality.
Both the Mozart and Bartok's "Contrasts" were written for specific clarinetists, the former for Anton Stadler, principal clarinet for the Vienna court orchestra at the very beginnings of that instrument's history, and the Bartok for Benny Goodman and violinist Joseph Szigeti.
"Contrasts" is a delightful work in three movements, the first "Verbunkos" or "Recruiting Dance," in which the instruments portray an army recruiter dancing to inveigle new recruits to join. There is a definite feel of the blues in the tempo and rhythm (a nod to Goodman's jazz hat) but not at all in the harmonies. It was followed by "Piheno" ("Relaxation)" a Nocturne-like section where you could almost hear an owl hooting, and "Sebes" ("Fast Dance") a jaunty whirlwind. Kavafian, playing violin here actually used two instruments, one tuned differently in order to create specific sounds the composer wanted, and Shifrin also used two clarinets, in B-Flat and A. The whole had energy and life, a performance and a work which engaged the listener.
Originally for seven instruments, two dancers and a narrator, Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" was reduced by the composer to a suite for just three instruments. As Shifrin said from the stage, the violin continues to be the Soldier, the clarinet takes on the parts of bassoon, trumpet and trombone as well as clarinet, while the piano has everything else, which essentially means piano and a raft of percussion instruments. It's brilliant writing, and astonishingly, the work emerges sounding as full as though all seven instruments were there, with the same urgency and fullness. The Trio again gave an absorbing performance, with every detail clear and audible, the sense propulsive as though one couldn't wait to hear the end of the story.
Finally, the Trio played an arangement by William Bolcom of rags composed by Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott and one of his own, "Graceful Ghosts." Many in the audience will remember that the last time we heard "Graceful Ghosts," it was at George Shangrow's recent memorial service in its usual piano version.
It was just the right ending to this concert, where the playing was stellar thoughout, and the choices and order of the program were artfully planned. There is almost the same kind of elegance to ragtime as there is in Mozart, and it was perfect to have those two works as bookends to the much more quirky ideas of Bartok and Stravinsky.
This was the first of the UW Chamber Music Series, and it was surprising to see Meany Theater not full for this superb concert. If we as audience want to keep these cream-of-the crop of chamber musicians coming in this annual UW International Chamber Music series, we need to support it by attending concerts. Meany is acoustically a wonderful venue for chamber music in the city. So this is a plea to come to performances, lest we lose it.