ECMSA 30th-anniversary celebrants gather for a photo, l-r: Jun-Ching Lin, Jessica Shuang Wu, Julie Coucheron, Helen Hwaya Kim, Emily Daggett Smith, Jesús Castro-Balbi, William Ransom, Yinzi Kong, Zhenwei Shi, and Guang Wang. (courtesy of ECMSA)

ECMSA celebrates 30th anniversary with Emerson Series opener

ECMSA celebrates 30 years
September 17, 2022
Emerson Hall, Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, Atlanta, GA
Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta, Emerson Series
Emily Daggett Smith, Jessica Shuang Wu, Helen Hwaya Kim & Jun-Ching Lin, violins; Yinzi Kong & Zhenwei Shi, violas; Guang Wang & Jesús Castro-Balbi, cellos; Julie Coucheron & William Ransom, piano.

Johannes BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56
Maurice RAVEL: String Quartet in F Major
Samuel BARBER: Adagio for Strings
Felix MENDELSSOHN: Octet in E-flat Major, op. 20

Mark Gresham | 21 SEP 2022

The Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta celebrated its 30th anniversary with the opening concert of its Emerson Series on Saturday evening with a program of tried-and-true hits by Brahms, Ravel, Barber, and Mendelssohn.

Op. 56b first edition cover (Simrock).

Cover of Op. 56b, first edition (Simrock).

Pianists Julie Coucheron and William Ransom opened with a two-piano version of Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56b.

The famous “St. Anthony Chorale” on which it is based has long been attributed to Franz Josef Haydn. The authenticity of that assertion is doubtful, although Brahms must have trusted his source, a piece for wind ensemble attributed to Haydn. Brahms titled his Variations accordingly, crediting Haydn for the theme. However, the wind piece that was his source does not fit Haydn’s style and remains without definitive attribution. Nor do we even know whether the composer of that wind piece wrote the tune or quoted it from an older, unknown source.

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Nevertheless, the attribution to Haydn remains so popular as musical mythology and remains in many hymnals and church music publications. At least one “easy hands” organ arrangement goes farther afield and misattributes the original chorale to Brahms — once again, two wrongs not making a right.

Coucheron and Ransom take a bow. (courtesy of ECMSA)

Coucheron and Ransom take a bow. (courtesy of ECMSA)

Regardless of who wrote the “St. Anthony Chorale,” the pair of intriguing five-measure phrases that open the theme captures the attention. The second reappears in the latter half of the chorale, interrupted by dovetailing into a celebratory coda.

Although Brahms originally wrote the Variations for orchestra (Op. 56a), the two-piano version is his own. Each variation is distinctive, some displaying Brahms’ mastery of counterpoint. The finale, built on a five-measure ground bass derived from the principal theme, culminates in a magnificent restatement of the chorale.

The performance by Coucheron and Ransom was an assured opener for the celebratory concert, with well-synchronized playing and good attention to dynamic contrasts. No surprises here, nor elsewhere in the program.

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The Vega Quartet (violinists Emily Daggett Smith and Jessica Shuang Wu, violist Yinzi Kong, and cellist Guang Wang, cello) then took the stage to perform Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major.

Smith is the newest member of Vega Quartet, having taken up her position as its first violinist in January 2022 and with her first official concert with them in February. The other three players — Wu, Kong, and Wang — are all original members of the Vega Quartet, which has been Quartet in Residence at Emory University since 2006. Smith is their fourth first violinist, but a positive chemistry between the current players is evident. Their recent performance in Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet with Ransom was exemplary, and this concert’s Ravel a validating follow-up, particularly the second and fourth movements. It will be fascinating to observe how Vega Quartet evolves this season

The largest convergence of musicians for the evening came after intermission: a string octet comprised of the Vega Quartet plus violinists Helen Hwaya Kim and Jun-Ching Lin, violist Zhenwei Shi, and cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi.

The group first performed Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, arguably his best-known work, in a nod to what musicians and audiences went through during the two-plus years of the pandemic.

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Full of pathos and cathartic passion, the Adagio was originally the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. He arranged it for string orchestra in 1936, the same year he wrote the quartet.

Although there is a contrabass part in the string orchestral version, which adds depth to a full complement of symphonic strings at the beginning and end of the work where it doubles the second cello part, it is not so essential that it cannot be left out when played by a small group like a string octet. Likewise, it makes better sense with an octet to take advantage of the string divisi in the orchestra version, rather than simply doubling all of the parts from the string quartet. (Otherwise, you might as well play the original and be done with it.) It offered a reflective, meditative 10 minutes in contrast to the evening’s more festive fare.

They concluded the concert with Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, composed when he was only 16 years old. At the time, it was a relatively new genre. The Octet expresses youthful aspirations and hopefulness through its irrepressible verve, emotional depth, and craftsmanship. It is an impressive work by someone so young and served as a suitable celebratory ending for Saturday’s 30th-anniversary concert.


Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.