The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chamber Music players took the stage at Mandel Hall in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon and gave a good, but not great, performance of music by Igor Stravinsky, Antonín Dvořák, and Peter Tchaikovsky. While there were plenty of outstanding moments in the program entitled Music in the Vernacular, on the whole, the performance left me wanting.
Six performers were present, four of whom are in the CSO: violinists Rong-Yan Tang and Cornelius Chiu, and violists Youming Chen and Diane Mues. Two cellists also performed. Calum Cook is a regular substitute with the CSO and in the CSO MusicNOW series. Krystian Chiu is a visiting artist. A quartet composed of Tang, Cornelius Chiu, Chen, and Cook played the first half, which opened with Stravinsky’s Concertino, a short work for string quartet.
This fascinating piece explores dissonance with different instruments playing different notes a half tone apart. It creates primary and secondary themes common in traditional sonata form. The quartet really sounded good, especially first violinist Tang, who wonderfully played a cadence passage in the middle of the work with minimal backing by Chen and Cook on viola and cello.
Next on the program was String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major by Dvořák. I have recently had the pleasure of hearing several pieces of chamber music by this Czech composer, whose string quartets and quintets do not get as much performance as they should. This quartet is his last; it’s one of his best.
This performance started well with the slow, tender Adagio, ma non troppo transitioning into the faster Allegro appassionato main themes. During some of the transition sections, however, the sound got a bit cloudy, and something was ever so slightly out of tune. The phrase endings didn’t quite resonate with the normal overtones one would expect.
Intonation got a lot better after the scherzo, when the violist and cellist did some tuning up. The slow movement Lento e molto cantabile was a treat, played with a dreamy wistfulness. The interactions between the players was especially nice as the cello and viola would play rhythmic blasts as the violins harmonized the tune. In the recap, the cello and play the tune and the higher instruments made the rhythmic bursts. They gelled really well in the more intense passages.
Following intermission, all six players took the stage, with Cornelius Chiu taking the first violin chair, and Rong-Yan Tang taking the second, which is something I love to see. Like Tang in the opening half, Chiu carried himself well.
Sometimes it’s hard to disentangle the performance from the piece. Tchaikovsky wrote Souvenier of Florence upon returning to Russia from Italy. As the excellent program notes said, Tchaikovsky, who didn’t write a lot of chamber music, struggled working with six instruments. This many instruments will sound like a larger orchestra, but it was almost too much on Sunday. While the notes were correct and the intonation decent, the sound was like a blur in many places. Greater dynamic changes might have helped.
When opportunities arose for solo instruments or a pair of instruments to interact, they performed well. The cellos backed up the higher instruments in the first part of the opening movement, but, as in the Dvořák, it reversed in the recap with the violins backing up the cellos. It’s always fun to watch when a melodic snippet starts on the first violin and passes to each instrument down the score. Same when it happens in reverse.
Just before the opening movement recap, they all came together with nice set of chords with all instruments sounding clearly with great phrasing. That was not the case in the chords at the start of the second movement, but things improved in the chords later in the movement. The movement’s ending was fabulous. Ensemble playing in the Scherzo and finale were much better. They really handled the sudden cadences in unison well.
At the end, the audience reaction was respectful, but only half gave it a standing ovation. There were not many curtain calls.