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February 3, 2010

Leon Fleisher, Pamela Frank and other Peabody faculty perform Brahms

As the snow was covering Mount Vernon Place with a picturesque layer Tuesday night, faculty members of the Peabody Conservatory performed a rewarding chamber music program.

The big draw was another opportunity to hear Leon Fleisher in two-handed mode, playing Brahms' F minor Quintet. Any time this pianist takes the stage is an occasion, of course, even when he is using only his left hand (damage to his right restricted his keyboard options for decades until Botox therapy in recent years made it possible to use that hand again, within limits). Each ambidextrous venture becomes all the more treasurable an occasion.

Fleisher was joined in the Brahms work by violinists Violaine Melancon and Pamela Frank (a major talent who has not been in the spotlight much lately and here took the second violin chair), violist Maria Lambros and cellist Michael Kannen. Except for the most emphatic moments, when Melancon's tone tended to fray, the string players poured on a cohesively blended, warm-bodied sound and phrased with great sensitivity. Fleisher's contributions were, as usual, authoritative in character throughout.

Although I wouldn't have minded a little more

tension from the ensemble in the second movement, a little more abandon in the finale, this was an insightful, loving account of a darkly beautiful score.

The string players alone delivered the first half of the concert. After an amiable account of Beethoven's D major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 3, attention turned Webern's Five Movements, Op. 5. I readily confess that this, for me, was the most satisfying part of the whole evening.

Webern, widely ignored by musical organizations and even more widely feared by listeners, remains one of the most significant composers of the last century. Hearing these brief, idea-packed scores, which reveal Webern boldly stretching away from traditional tonality toward a new world of sound and structure, was a rare, absorbing pleasure.

It was made all the more intense by the superb technical control and expressive nuance of the players -- and the extraordinary silence in the audience. Every note could be fully savored in the hall, even the softest, when the musicians masterfully filed their tone down to the barest, yet still wonderfully expressive, essence.

I'll always stubbornly believe that the the general public could embrace a lot more of Webern (not to mention Schoenberg and Berg) if only a) the music were programmed more frequently and carefully, and b) if it were always performed with the kind of care and commitment demonstrated here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:03 AM | | Comments (2)


Webern's "Five Movements" is scheduled to be performed at Shriver Hall by the Hagen Quartet on April 25.

Thanks for the reminder. I wonder how it will go over there. TIM

This Peabody performance was the first time that I heard Webern's "Five Movements," so I decided to buy it on CD so that I will be familiar with it by the time I hear the Hagen Quartet perform it. I chose the Naxos CD of Webern pieces performed by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Takuo Yuasa. Even though I noticed that it was an orchestral performance, I was surprised to discover that "Five Movements" was in a version for string orchestra. Webern wrote the quartet version in 1909 and the string orchestra version in 1929. The richer sound is nice. (That sentence should reveal that I am not a professional music critic.)

You sound better informed than some pros I know. Thanks for commenting. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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