We all have fantasies of post-pandemic life.
Ardent Cubs fans picture themselves back at Wrigley Field. Some of us dream of rollicking dinners at noisy, jam-packed restaurants. Others recall the joys of watching real, live performers on a real, live stage.
Over the weekend in Evanston, chamber music lovers traveled back to that longed-for future at outdoor performances at an historic lakefront mansion. Billed as the Evanston Chamber Music Festival, the series features top-flight string players in intriguing programs. The final concert is tonight.
On a certain level, the festival is simply the brainchild of a few musician friends getting together to put on a show. Victor Asuncion, a Filipino-American pianist based in Chicago, lined up area players who were sheltering in place. The lead sponsor is the FilAm Music Foundation, devoted to nurturing young Filipino-American classical musicians. But Asuncion’s musician friends included Chicago Symphony Orchestra members, Frank Almond, long-time concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony, and an assortment of gifted freelancers. These shows were bound to be good.
At Sunday night’s performance, Covid-19 wasn’t entirely forgotten. Everyone, including the musicians—violinists Brian Hong and Rannveig Marta Sarc and cellists Alexander Hersh and Ezra Escobar—wore masks. The audience of about 35 sat in widely spaced chairs on the mansion’s rear lawn, and temperatures were taken at check-in. But the atmosphere was relaxed and quietly festive. Both audience and players gratefully basked in the pleasure of finally being in one another’s company after more than five months of pandemic-induced isolation.
The program, which ranged from Corelli to Augusta Read Thomas, was full of emotional heft and virtuoso demands. But it also had an endearing light-hearted undercurrent. Hong and Sarc (who recently married) teamed up for a gleeful bit of off-kilter fiddling in Homage to Anonymous Ancient Fiddlers, a 2015 work by Korean-American composer Texu Kim. After Hong purposely tuned his violin a quarter-note below Sarc’s, the pair dug into the fast-paced piece. Swooping and swinging, they played its slightly off-pitch melodies with the good cheer of country musicians at a Saturday night hoedown. A few melodies sounded vaguely familiar but with an amiably tart bit of dissonance.
Works for two violins and cello by Corelli and Giovanni Battista Viotti, an 18th century violin virtuoso, presented a more elegant veneer in a similarly engaging vein. In the final movement of Viotti’s String Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 19, No. 1, Sarc’s playful violin ignited a merry chase, set against Hong’s full-throated responses and Hersh’s steady cello line.
In the more somber works, the musicians revealed an emotional depth that comes from performers who know each other well and care deeply about the music they play.
Following the cheerful Homage to Anonymous Ancient Fiddlers with Silent Moon, a meditative piece by Augusta Read Thomas, offered a bracing contrast. Written in 2006 for violin and cello, the piece is a musical portrait of a clear, wintery night. But in Thomas’s vision, the moon, so often portrayed by a silvery, crystalline violin line, seems to reside in the cello. Sending out long-held, sometimes grainy low notes, Hersh’s cello was a constant reassuring presence. Sarc’s rounded violin lines floated slowly, shifting shapes like clouds, sometimes blending with Hersh’s glowing cello, sometimes drifting away, solitary and thoughtful, into the deep winter night.
Hong and Hersh shared a similarly attentive connection in Kodaly’s demanding Duo, Op. 7, for Violin and Cello. Hersh’s mellow yet rich cello and Hong’s commanding violin were an excellent match, and they fully explored the music’s despairing depths and dark, sometimes rhapsodic flights.
Escobar, a gifted Filipino-American cellist, was a vibrant soloist in four selections from Seven Tunes Heard in China by Bright Sheng. He is an expressive musician, capable of etching the air with eerie, hushed melodies. But in the final “Tibetan Dance” he played with a obsessive drive of a possessed soul.
There were the usual outdoor-concert distractions Sunday night: low-flying aircraft, cicadas in full-throated frenzy. But the setting, the rear porch of the Charles G. Dawes House, proved to be a fine idea. The back wall and overhang of the shallow porch formed a kind of acoustic shell, allowing the audience to clearly hear every note.
It may still be months before we return to concert going as usual, whatever usual may turn out to be. But Sunday’s performance was a timely reminder: In music, there is nothing like the real, live thing.
The Evanston Chamber Music Festival closes 7 p.m. tonight with music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Dohnanyi. filammusic.foundation/theevanstonchambermusicfestival/