Greenwich-Stamford, Connecticut

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Great performances in an intimate setting

Chamber music should be an informal kind of feel-great music performed expertly, but maintain the feel of music made between, and for, friends. The Treetops Chamber Music Society achieved this sense, and its home in the Treetops is a pleasure to visit. At any rate, this is a series not to be missed.

—Stamford Advocate

Stamford Advocate, Arts Section
October 30, 2009

Treetops Chamber Music Society opens season with hot program

By Jeffrey Johnson

The weather isn't the only thing that's been hot in Stamford. The Treetops Chamber Music Society opened its 2009-10 season last weekend with a fiery program played by the Escher string quartet -- Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie on violin, Pierre Lapointe on viola and cellist Andrew Janss.

The premier of a work by Pascal Gaigne for clarinet and string quartet was cancelled because the composer wasn't satisfied with the work and wanted more time to develop it. While unfortunate, this allowed the Escher quartet to add the second string quartet by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) to a program of music by Schubert.

Even prior to playing a note the ensemble made an impression: there were four music stands but only one chair onstage. The violins and viola played the entire concert standing. This produced a signature sound; big, rich and edgy. After hearing Escher I am convinced the ensemble would run while playing if we could keep up with them.

The highlight was the performance of the Zemlinsky quartet. Zemlinsky was part of the Arnold Schoenberg circle and though performances and recordings of his music are increasing over recent seasons, it is a still an unexpected pleasure to hear his music live.

Zemlinsky's second string quartet is like Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night" stretched over a weekend. Passionately romantic, the work breaks across all boundaries, weaving together disparate tonalities, meters and expectations. The Escher quartet voiced it boldly and reveled in the score's complexities. Lapointe played the viola line with extraordinary color, voicing the soloistic lines that permeate the work in prismatic elegance.

The work by Zemlinsky was sandwiched with works by Schubert. The "Quartettsatz" in C minor, D. 703 opened the program with its world of buzzing and mercurial harmonic shifts. Barnett-Hart played the soaring lines of the first violin part with perfect intonation and memorable lightness.

The String Quartet in G Major, D. 887, is about opposites. It shifts between major and minor with broken fanfares and humble dances. The Escher quartet played the opening gesture as a match that is struck and becomes fire. They used this energy to permeate and characterize the entire movement.

They took the third movement scherzo slower than is the norm. This made the primary rhythmic motive seem less like a snare-drum rudiment and also allowed the ensemble to luxuriate in the music of the trio -- a relaxed and innocent music that is rare in this work.

Escher took the finale in drop-jaw fast tempo. It was a thrill to hear this music cut so clean at that speed. The extended ensemble syncopations came across relaxed and jazzy, and the juxtaposed dances came in and out of focus with brilliant care.

This was not a program for audiences who are dull. The Treetops audience was attentive and absorbed throughout the event. I even heard one gentleman accurately hum a tune from the closing andante of the Zemlinsky quartet during intermission. Escher reached people.

For all the motion in their playing, the ensemble is visually quiet and inward. Their physical interactions could use more smiles and other friendly contacts from time to time, but their playing is hot as fire.

Jeffrey Johnson is director of the music program at the University of Bridgeport and a published author who has written books on performance practice.

Copyright (c) 2009, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

Stamford Advocate, Arts Section
September 21, 2008

Treetops Season Opener Is A Delight For The Ears

By Jeffrey Johnson
Special Correspondent

The Treetops Chamber Music Society opened its third season on Sept. 14 with a quickly crafted solution to an emergency. Cellist Joel Noyes injured his hand the night before the concert. He was able to play, and one would never have guessed he was injured based on the sound, but the scheduled program needed to be significantly altered to ease his duties. The changes were of interest, and electrifying solo performances by Yoon Kwon on violin made the event quite memorable.

The Treetops Studio in Stamford was artist Louis Schanker's working studio during the last 20 years of his life. The building has a lovely setting in the woods, and hearing music in the space, with prints and watercolors of musicians created by Schanker, made for a powerful experience, a blending of sonic and visual delights.

The evening opened with the Trio Op. 20 No. 5 in E-flat major by Johann Baptist Vanhal, played by Kwon, Noyes and clarinetist Oskar Espina Ruiz (the artistic and executive director of the series). It was festive. The performance developed gorgeous, vocal-style melodic exchanges between violin and clarinet in the second movement, and closed with a bouyant reading of the finale's clever textural exchanges.

Next came the first two contrapuncti from the "Art of Fugue" by Bach transcribed for solo clarinet by Luís de Pablo. The arrangement floats among the four available contrapunctal lines of the original, finding engaging pathways. I could not help hearing all four parts in my mind as the performance spun its way along. The clarinet line highlighted and illuminated parts of the lines I was imagining. It was a fascinating new way to hear Bach. Ruiz extended his lines with circular breathing and presented these intriguing transcriptions with conviction. The clarinet timbre created an almost jazzy feel in the second contrapunctus.

Kwon concluded the first half of music with the Partita in D minor for solo violin (BWV 1004) by Johann Sebastian Bach. This was a commanding performance, intelligent and full of rhythmic intensity. Kwon plays with precision and soul. The Corrente was crisp and full of a gathered energy, the saraband expressive and lyrical, and the giga consumed in digital fire. This partita ends with the infamous Ciaccona. Kwon developed the successive sections into musical storytelling. It was charismatic and deeply affecting.

After intermission, we heard "Assobio a Jato" ("The Jet Whistle") by Heitor Villa-lobos, transcribed for clarinet and cello by Ruiz. The transcription was fun and convincing, particularly in the second movement adagio, where it might be argued that the sound out-performs the flute original. The outer movements became a showcase for the crystalline high register of Ruiz, who plays in the stratosphere of his instrument with freakish clarity and precision.

Elliott Carter's short work from 1990 for violin, clarinet and cello, "Con Leggerezza Pensosa-Omaggio a Italo Calvino," made for an effective contrast in the program. The ensemble focused a great deal of attention on relative balances between parts and many sparkling passages resulted.

Kwan returned to close the evening with a fiery performance of the Sonata No. 3 in D Minor by the Belgian composer Eugčne Ysa˙e.

Chamber music should be an informal kind of feel-great music performed expertly, but maintain the feel of music made between, and for, friends. The Treetop Chamber Music Society achieved this sense, and its home in the Treetops is a pleasure to visit. The group will perform again today, and organizers believe that Noyes will be at 100 percent by then. At any rate, this is a series not to be missed.

Copyright (c) 2008, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

Stamford Advocate, Arts Section
November 14, 2008

A Virtuoso Trio Of Diverse Personalities At Treetops

By Jeffrey Johnson
Special Correspondent

Pianist Benjamin Hochman fixed a glance at violinist Tai Murray to perfectly synchronize his line to a pizzicato accompaniment on the downbeat that opened a performance full of details and commanding musicality. The event, called "Ravel Piano Trio," was given by the Treetops Chamber Music Society Nov. 9, and will be repeated today at 3 p.m.

The Haydn Piano Trio in E major Hob. XV:28 that opened this concert fit like a glove into the acoustic environment of this cozy space, which used to be artist Louis Schanker's working studio. Hochman, Murray and cellist Joel Noyes were able to maximize natural balances - sounds that resembled delicate and colorful conversation rather than the "stage voice" used to make this repertoire work in larger halls. The ensemble took the fascinating second movement as a dancing allegretto; it moved and swayed but kept the feel of late 18th-century blues.

This ensemble also blended and harmonized their contrasting musical personalities. Murray is all about fire and intensity. She had an expressive palette of vibratos and managed the weight and speed of her bowing to create affecting sound. Noyes had a sophisticated, subtle humor that animated his intellectuality. His sound was polished, elegant and sincere. Hochman had perfect rhythm. He also projected inner voices and unexpected lines with ingenuity. His awareness of the ensemble and role within it, and his ability to support as well as lead, make him a formidable chamber music pianist.

This collection of personalities combined to great advantage in the Ravel Piano Trio in A minor to close the first half of the program. Hochman opened the trio with that intoxicating rhythm of 3+2+3 that Ravel transformed from Basque dance music. This movement derives energy from pulling against the feel of dance music, using syncopations and gradual alterations of tempo that were expertly controlled in this performance.

The second movement, called "Pantoum," had a wonderful moment in its trio, when Hochmann voiced a formal chorale-like music in four, while Murray and Noyes accompanied with folksy music in three. Instantly, the texture changed and the roles, the characters and the time signatures reversed. The close of this movement, particularly the final cadence, sparkled.

After the lyrical third movement, the finale followed attaca, buzzing forward in complex meters and energetic and athletic virtuosity. This movement dissolves into trills at its close, and when it is played this well, all one can do is smile.

The Schubert Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 99, D. 898, closed the concert. It is an epic journey that unfolds in broad panels and arcing, extended phrases. The ensemble had several lovely moments but did not reveal anything we had not already discovered in the first half of the program. Perhaps it would have been better to open with Schubert and follow with Haydn and Ravel.

Nonetheless, this was a detailed, high-quality performance by an ensemble full of musical personality. This series has a friendly feel. Warm conversation abounded during intermission, and the walk through the woods afterward could not have been more beautiful and pleasant.

Copyright (c) 2008, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.
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