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[whitespace] The Ives Have It

Dvorák, Brahams and Puccini selections highlight Ives Quartet concert in Santa Cruz

By Scott MacClelland

QUICK, WHAT'S THE CAPITAL of Georgia? Try Tbilisi, where Tamriko Siprashvili began her piano studies at age 3. Given her performance Monday (May 15) at UCSC, she must love the instrument as much as its repertoire. It was her presence that convinced the Ives Quartet to throw over the promised Arthur Foote String Quartet in favor of Antonin Dvorák's splendid Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81.

Alas, Mr. Foote's daughter rarely gets invited to the dance and then, when real glamour walks into the room, is quickly forgotten. But what can one expect? Mr. Foote's girl was brought up properly in turn-of-the-20th-century New England and can manage the quadrille, while Dvorák's vixen has fiery Gypsy blood in her veins and dances the dumka. No contest.

This theory was certainly supported by the appearance of Siprashvili, who happened to hear about this concert through her husband, well-known San Francisco Bay Area pianist Mark Anderson, her favorite duo-piano partner. In that capacity, the pair made their Bay Area debut in 1994 and have since performed the four-hand piano and two-piano literature elsewhere in the U.S., in England and even back home in Georgia.

Her win at the 1985 Robert Schumann Competition in Zwikau launched Siprashvili's international career. In playing the Dvorák at UCSC, she dominated her part with certainty and power. Her page-turner was Anderson.

This quintet stands as one of Dvorák's most popular chamber works, not least for its many imitation-folk music themes and rhythms. Its second movement is, in fact, a dumka, a dance form that alternates slow with fast, and which might never have gained international familiarity but for Dvorák's use of it here, in the well-known Dumky trio and in a string sextet. (Incidentally, this Ukrainian dance has its counterparts throughout Eastern Europe. It can be found, for example, in Liszt's popular Second Hungarian Rhapsody.)

But this particular dumka also introduces an especially haunting theme right at the start. In fact, the quintet is rich with hummable and quasinationalistic tunes, a quality that infuses such of its contemporary works as the Slavonic Dances, Symphony in G and the aforementioned Dumky trio.

Clearly the embrace of national spirit brought ever-increasing maturity to Dvorák's style and technique, and laid the foundation for those later masterpieces composed in the U.S.: the New World Symphony, Cello Concerto in B Minor and American string quartet.

Sheer Fire

If Dvorák's distinctive late style was slow to mature, which it was, Johannes Brahms was crafting great melodies from his earliest works, including the Piano Trio in B, Op. 8, written when he was 19. But for sheer fire, Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 contains the most incendiary movement the man ever wrote.

With a big, meaty piece like the Dvorák as a first course, the Brahms quintet pushed this feast way beyond reasonable bounds. Now Siprashvili turned pages for Anderson, who carried the work like Hercules.

Brahms was not yet 30 when he wrote the work in its first version for strings. (The definitive form would follow two years later.) This was still years before he committed himself to the great orchestral works on which his fame primarily rests. It may, therefore, come as a surprise to those who have not delved into the treasury of chamber works from the composer's earlier years. And as noted above, the scherzo of this work is breathtaking in its white-hot brilliance.

But, as in the Dvorák (which was obviously inspired by it), no one moment is without inspiration, astounding technique and abundance of talent.

The Ives Quartet used to be the Stanford Quartet, in that institution's apparently last revival of it. Not content to fold, Roy Malan, Susan Freier, Scott Woolweaver and Stephen Harrison took their show on the road, and they have won acclaim throughout the country, not least at various summer music festivals.

On this occasion, they actually sounded their best in the program appetizer, Puccini's sorrowful Crisantemi, a work composed as a memorial elegy. (Puccini would later recycle it as an intermezzo for his opera Manon Lescaut.) The work's softly intoned sentiments, gently massaged with chromatic dissonances, enjoyed a finely wrought expression of grief and loss.

Ironically, the open lid of the concert piano, and the heft of its role in the Dvorák and Brahms, gave the strings serious competition and left them at times overwhelmed. Woolweaver's bright viola sound reinforced the mid- and upper ranges of string sonority. Harrison's cello, however, lacked brilliance and in front of the muscular keyboard struggled to be heard.

At points, Malan himself sounded under some duress. (These musicians had played the same program the day before.) From the audience perspective, however, these were minor imperfections in an otherwise lavish banquet of great works, and certainly a program that should have attracted a larger audience turnout.

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Web extra to the May 24-31, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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