Clockwise from left: violinists Justin Bruns and Kenn Wagner, cellist Joel Dallow and violist Jessica Oudin performing Caroline Shaw’s "Valencia."

Review: Riverside Chamber Players make splendid season debut

William Ford | 05 NOV 2019

A crisp autumn Sunday afternoon hosted the season-opening concert of the Riverside Chamber Players (RCP). The RCP is made up of musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), including artistic director/cellist Joel Dallow, cellist Brad Ritchie, violist Jessica Oudin, and violinists Justin Bruns and Kenn Wagner. The resident composer for the RCP is Michael Kurth, celebrated local composer and ASO bassist. He made comments before the concert and lead a discussion with the audience halfway through the program.

Caroline Shaw’s Valencia was the first piece on the program. Shaw is the celebrated young (37-year-old) violinist, singer, and composer, who also happens to be the youngest-ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her work titled Partita for 8 Voices. Valencia, according to the composer, is an “untethered embrace of the architecture of the common Valencia orange, through billowing harmonics and somewhat vicious chord and melodies.” Well, okay we can take her at her word. The piece seemed a bit like a stream-of-consciousness composition that brings up ideas, but rarely develops or repeats them. On occasion, there were layers of sound, then flirtations with minimalist chord progressions (at least to my ear), then creative and unusual sounds from each instrument, and then what the composer herself described. All of it was fairly interesting but fleeting. Likely a second (or third) hearing would make it seem more substantial. Dallow, Wagner, Oudin, and Bruns played with confidence on obviously difficult music.

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The second work featured Bruns playing Kevin Puts’ Arches for solo violin (2000). Within a few seconds of the start of the six-movement work, it is apparent that it is an homage to J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas, with occasional fiddling thrown in for variety. Puts says that the title reflects the symmetrical form of the piece (Caprice-Aria-Caprice-Aria-Caprice). In some ways, it also pays homage to the works of Paganini, in that Arches makes incredible technical demands on the soloist. This includes glissandi, double stops, pizzicato (including left-handed plucking), and arpeggiando, which requires the violinist to bow rapidly over all four strings. Mr. Bruns deserves much credit for taking on this demanding work and acquitting himself both musically and technically. The occasional intonation problems resulted from his violin becoming unturned, which he corrected between movements. The audience of about 125 people was suitably impressed and gave the violinist a warm reception. By the way, Kevin Puts is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer.

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The final work on the program was Anton Arensky’s Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Opus 25. Arensky was one of those “almost-made-it composers” whose reputation is being refurbished, and for good reason. The composer came from a musically oriented family and he showed such promise that he was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study composition with none other than Rimsky-Korsakov. He was later to become director of the Imperial choir. He was enthralled by the music of Tchaikovsky, with whom he became friends. Arensky was fairly prolific as a composer and died at age 44, allegedly due to a dual addiction of gambling and alcoholism.

The Second Quartet was scored for the traditional string quartet and alternatively for violin, viola, and two cellos. The latter version was chosen by the RCP, featuring Bruns, Oudin, Dallow, and Ritchie. The three-movement work is probably most famous for its second movement, “Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky,” which features the theme from the fifth song of Tchaikovsky’s 15 Songs for Children, Op. 54. But while the older Russian master was obviously a source of inspiration for Arensky, the first and third movements of the Quartet derive their power from the music of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

l-r: violinists Justin Bruns, violist Jessica Oudin, and cellists Brad Ritchie and Joel Dallow performing Arensy's 'Struing Quartet No. 2."(courtesy of Riverside Chamber Players)

l-r: violinists Justin Bruns, violist Jessica Oudin, and cellists Brad Ritchie and Joel Dallow performing Arensy’s ‘Struing Quartet No. 2.”(courtesy of Riverside Chamber Players)

The first movement introduction, maybe because of the two cello arrangement, is highly reminiscent of the introduction of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which itself is drawn from the Eastern Church’s Troparian of the Holy Cross. The final movement begins with a theme from a Russian funeral mass. This is lovely accessible music that gives a peek at the composer’s genius. The RCP performed the Quartet with warmth and skill. With luck, Arensky’s nascent rediscovery will lead to his music being heard more frequently.

This was a great season debut for the RCP. Their Spring Concert will be on March 8, 2020. Details can be found at ■

William Ford is an avid classical music fan and a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. His reviews and interviews can most frequently be found online at Bachtrack and