By John Schilling
Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are long gone, but the legacies of these composers live on through the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, which hosted the first “Music For Strings” concert at the Tow Center’s Don Buchwald Theater last Wednesday, Mar. 9.
Among the performers were violinists Samer Chiavello, Lexi Lester-Williams, Izzy Bruschi, Benjamin Kotik, Rashad Singh, Lila Bruschi, and Samuel Braiman; violoncellist Mary Beth Perez Castaño; and pianist Eri Kang. Unlike the Winter Composers Concert, the performers played a variety of works by famous composers, containing multiple movements and spanning the late 17th century to the early 20th century.
The concert began with a masked Chiavello channeling his inner Johann Sebastian Bach with a performance of the composer’s “Sarabande” and “Gigue,” the third and fourth movements of “Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.”
Chiavello offered the audience a variety in his performance with sounds reminiscent of a walk through Italy, speed changes, brief pauses in place of transitions, and sharp movements. These movements often included a concentrated Chiavello moving his entire upper body along with the music and gliding his fingers across the neck of the violin as he carefully moved the pedal back and forth.
This strong start to the concert put pressure on the rest of the performers, but each of them rose to the occasion.
Lexi Lester-Williams followed immediately after Chiavello with a performance of Carl Friedrich Zelter’s “Allegro con fuoco,” the first movement of his “Viola Concerto in E-flat major.” Accompanied by Eri Kang on the piano, the two worked in tandem with varying speeds and sounds that put the violin and piano in conversation with each other as they bounced back and forth between playing together and separately. This repetition established an upbeat theme throughout the piece in which the separate performances created a sense of tension and their musical coming together relieved it.
The same was true for Izzy Bruschi’s performance of César Franck’s “Allegretto poco mosso,” the fourth movement of his “Violin Sonata in A major.” This work, however, was much more somber yet romantic than it was upbeat, but the conversation between violin and piano was still present and ultimately brought to a satisfying end with both Bruschi and Kang playing and finishing together simultaneously with impeccable timing.
Shortly after, the concert reached its halfway point and shook things up with a violoncello performance of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre” by Mary Beth Perez Castaño. Kang began the piece slowly on the piano before Perez Castaño grabbed the neck of the cello and began to play in response to Kang, creating a waltz-like relationship in which the piano acted as a bass backing to the cello.
This was not consistent throughout as the two played simultaneously at parts with Perez Castaño’s fingers dancing up and down the cello’s neck and Kang taking off on the piano. Still, the waltz-like feature of the piece was revisited from time to time, establishing a theme.
The concert entered its second half by circling back to Bach. This time around, however, it would be Benjamin Kotik playing the composer’s “Allegro moderato,” the first movement from “Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041.” While shorter than the previous works, Kotik’s performance was impactful and celebratory throughout.
Kotik did not hesitate to wake up the audience, starting his piece off on a louder note before shifting to a lower one with his eyes fixed on the violin and his left hand shifting between a firm and loose grip on the neck. The shifting dynamics allowed Kotik to build tension in the piece, and the repetition of this shift established a theme in the work that built up to a strong, quick finish.
This allowed Rashad Singh to take the stage to perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Allegro” and “Adagio molto espressivo,” the first and second movements of his “Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, ‘Spring,’ op. 24.” Like Kotik, Singh was calm and collected from start to finish, but his performance was substantially longer.
Singh, like most of the performers, was accompanied by Kang on piano, but you wouldn’t know it at first by listening alone. Kang’s piano backing started off low as an unrattled Singh played throughout with occasional pauses that allowed the piano to shine. By the second movement, the work had taken on a much more eery, somber tone with careful repetition of Kang on the piano playing something, a stone-faced Singh on the violin replicating and repeating it, and the duo then playing together.
After Singh, Lila Bruschi took the stage and performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Allegro,” the first movement of his “Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216,” with a much different approach. Kang began the piece with a fast, upbeat piano melody before slowing down to allow Bruschi, with a big smile on her face, to chime in on the violin and imitate Kang but with louder dynamics, something that would stay consistent throughout the piece.
In this regard, Kang and Bruschi engaged in a back and forth throughout the piece, but the shifts throughout made obvious the teamwork between them.
Upon Kang and Bruschi’s finish, the concert welcomed its final performer to the stage in Samuel Braiman, who brought the event to a close with a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Allegro molto appassionato,” the first movement of his “Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64.”
Backed by Kang with a fast piano melody, Braiman started playing immediately and sped up his movements to increase the dynamics and build tension in the piece – a tension that would be broken by Kang chiming in or taking over the piece on the piano. Braiman, with his teeth clenched, carefully dragged the bow across the violin at a range of different speeds while the piano remained consistent.
As the piece progressed, however, the piano took on a much more aggressive pace that allowed Braiman to take his time between the different sections of the movement. By working together, Kang and Braiman brought both the piece and the entire concert to a triumphant conclusion.
The next “Music for Strings” concert will take place on Apr. 27.