Mark Gresham | 20 FEB 2023
On Saturday evening at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta (ECMSA) presented a concert of music by Beethoven, Brahms, and Dvořák featuring two honored guest artists, violist James Dunham and cellist Norman Fischer, joined by Emory’s Vega Quartet and pianist William Ransom. It was the last in a series of four events in two days with Dinham and Fischer, beginning with a Friday noontime concert at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, then a pair of masterclasses in between that and the Schwartz Center concert.
Dunham has a rich background in chamber music, having been a founding member of the Sequoia String Quartet and, subsequently, violist of the Cleveland Quartet.
Fischer likewise has an extensive chamber music background, including cellist of the Concord String Quartet throughout its 16-year career, and since 1971 half of the Fischer Duo with pianist Jeanne Kierman.
Both are currently faculty members at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston.
Ransom and Fischer launched the program with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No. 1, for cello and piano. Fischer’s vivid and keenly-intonated cello sound projected well over the backdrop of Ransom’s piano part, even though Ransom did not hold back in the sonata’s most robust passages.
By contrast, in Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in E♭ major, Op. 120, No. 2, for viola and piano, Dunham’s playing felt more subdued in tone though no less musically engaged. The first movement, after all, is marked “Allegro amabile,” which assumes a certain glowing warmth for the music without being pushy. Still, there were times when Dunham did not project quite enough and Ransom played too forcefully for balance in both the first movement and the very active “Allegro” portion of the final movement.
Worth noting that this Viola Sonata is actually the second of two sonatas Brahms wrote for clarinet and piano. Brahms himself transcribed both for viola with some alterations better suited to the instrument. Experience with hearing both versions in multiple past performances lends credence to my observation that the clarinet has a natural advantage over viola in achieving a good balance with the piano.
Dunham and Fischer joined the Vega Quartet (violinists Emily Daggett Smith and Jessica Shuang Wu, violist Yinzi Kong, and cellist Guang Wang) for the final work on the program, the String Sextet in A major, Op. 48 (B. 80) of Antonín Dvořák.
The first movement was a traditional sonata form; the second a “dumka” (though it lacks the contrasted alternating passages typical of Dvorak’s dumkas), and the third a lively scherzo marked “furiant” with obvious echoes of his Slavonic Dance No. 1.
The fourth movement began with a graceful theme stated in the violas and cellos, followed by six variations in which the six players wove together an intricate, often contrapuntal fabric. The lively final variation, marked “Stretta,” set up a dazzling “Presto” coda with a full-bodied, affirmative ending.
The six musicians exhibited a strong sense of ensemble, vital rhythmic interplay, and copious lyricism in their performance. ■
- Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta: chambermusicsociety.emory.edu
- James Dunham: jamesdunham.com
- Norman Fischer: music.rice.edu/faculty/norman-fischer
- William Ransom: music.emory.edu/home/people/biography/ransom-william.html
- Vega Quartet: vegaquartet.com/