From its lofty perch on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Hunter Museum of American Art stands apart from its surroundings, and yet seems to have comfortably existed in that spot forever. At least, that is the impression of a first time visitor…as I was recently. My particular visit, though, was for something other than the notable collection—it was for the final music event of the season in a chamber music series called String Theory, a partnership between the museum and Lee University in nearby Cleveland, Tenn.
The series, which has just completed its fifth season, is directed by the pianist Gloria Chien, who performs in many of the programs herself and is an Associate Professor of Music at Lee. However, it is Ms. Chien’s active connection to the professional chamber music world that has made possible the remarkable lineups of programs and artists that the series has enjoyed. Chien is an active recitalist around the U.S., a member of Chamber Music Society Two of Lincoln Center, the resident pianist with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston, and has recorded with violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and clarinetist Anthony McGill. As a result, String Theory has developed a reputation and artistic gravity that would be the envy of much larger cities. This week’s memorable season finale, sans Ms. Chien on stage, featured the Johannes String Quartet who performed the Brahms String Quartet (op. 51, no. 2) in A minor. The quartet was then joined by violist Kim Kashkashian and cellist Marcy Rosen for the string sextet version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.
At first glance, I had some reservations about the acoustics of the museum area used for the performances—essentially, a triangular space with floor to ceiling windows on one side (affording an amazing view) that meet an adjacent wall at a sharp angle behind a performance riser. But, I shouldn’t have worried. The riser provided a substantial resonance boost for the cellos on this occasion, while the angled window wall countered with a bit of bright reverb for the other strings, together giving the quartet and the sextet a sound that was warm, but with a surprising clarity.
Although the space worked well sonically, the visual impact and distractions of the window wall and approaching twilight were all too apparent once the novelty of it wore off. Of course, concerts during the earlier darkness of the winter months would avoid this issue. Still, sightlines are a bit of a problem, given the flat floor, whatever the season, preventing those in the rear two-thirds from easily seeing the players.
The performances at this week’s concert, though, were enchanting. The quartet (Soovin Kim and Jessica Lee, violins; Choong-Jin Chang, viola; and Peter Stumpf, cello) opened with the Brahms and immediately set a tone of measured Romantic cheerfulness that fell perfectly into the expressive sweet spot between the extremes of dry severity and over exuberance. While the second movement has the ability to seem too long in the wrong hands, the quartet gave it an interesting ebb and flow between moments of drama and serenity. By the finale, one is ready for some intensity and fun and gets it with a bit of Hungarian flavor vaguely reminiscent of the drama of the final movement of the Brahms opus 25 piano quartet…Altogether, a deeply satisfying interpretation.
At least to those of us 115 years later, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht captures the essence of fin de siècle Europe, where confrontations with sensual pleasure were but one aspect of the fading of the 19th century and the simmering of revolutionary thought in art, music, and society—in other words, the transition from Romanticism to 20th Century modernism.
The sextet took on the work with intensity and gave it an emotional depth that, in my opinion, the later string orchestra version simply can never have. The group was able to beautifully explore both the density and lightness in the piece that comes from distinct voices, emoting musically, becoming alternately viscous or transparent. And one cannot ignore the romantic poignancy of the work that was lovingly captured.
String Theory has announced its sixth season of six events, beginning in October with pianists Leon and Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. Other events include the Pacifica Quartet, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and, of course, Ms. Chien.
String Theory at the Hunter
10 Bluff View Street
Photos by the author