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Morphing Music to Public Appetite

Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble Performs Classics With Soloistic Vigor, Occasional Imbalance

By Dan Altman


Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble

at Jordan Hall

February 10

Metamorphosen, the string ensemble led by Scott Yoo '93, gave its second-ever concert last Friday at Jordan Hall.

Metamorphosen's concerts, each of which are preceded by a lecture (this time by Yoo and composer Elena Ruehr), attempt to bring classical music to the general public in a semi-educational setting.

Yoo's group began as a collection of highly skilled string players primarily from Harvard and the New England Conservatory who, in their first concert, succeeded to a great extent in playing cohesively. Last Friday, they reached a higher level of unity--Metamorphosen, at times, took on the character of a single solo instrument.

This incredible development was most manifest in the last piece on the program, Hugo Wolf's "Italian Serenade." Wolf originally composed the one-movement "Serenade" for string quartet and planned further movements; he later adapted it for string orchestra. The piece has since become a frequent encore, as Yoo pointed out in a few words before the performance.

Metamorphosen dove into the "Serenade" with soloistic vigor, each violinist swelling through the lightly pitching opening phrases. Startlingly, all of their emotive swellings were perfectly choreographed and executed. As a result, the group brought far more levity and energy to the "Serenade" than any string section from a major orchestra could. For example, the recent recording by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's strings and Semyon Bychkov stands in stark contrast to Metamorphosen's performance.

The group's transformation into a single, energetic organ occurred less frequently in Dvorak's "Serenade for Strings," a bastion of the string repertoire and the oddly-placed anchor of the program's first half. In the first movement, Metamorphosen produced impeccable entrances in the strings' higher octaves and gave more emotional weight to the first two themes than they usually receive. The tempo for this Moderato was definitely stately but never too slow.

Yoo took up the baton for the first time on the Dvorak. Too often, his motions in the first movement fell out of kilter with what the group was trying to convey. While they drew out long lines for phrases, Yoo still rocked back and forth much like the ticker on an old-fashioned metronome. In this case, there was little evidence to support the typical claim that the ensemble simply wasn't following the leader well enough. At least in the first movement, Yoo's style clearly drew more on his own enthusiasm than on any particular intent for the piece.

In the third movement, a Scherzo, Metamorphosen greeted the audience with another refreshing change for the Dvorak--the weightless effervescence that only a small group can create. The music seemed to reside in an area several feet above the players' heads and filtered out to the audience in sparkling strands.

Yoo became appropriately subdued and careful throughout the delicate contours of the Larghetto. His conducting finally matched the group's intensity. In the Finale, Metamorphosen exercised a wondrous dynamic range with flawless control. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the tempi; the most glaring discrepancy occurred as the group handily beat Yoo to the recapitulation of the first movement's main theme.

The violist Walter Trampler's association with Yoo began when he judged Yoo at an international violin competition. Since then, the two have collaborated several times, including a performance of Mozart's "Sinfonia Concertante" with the Bach Society Orchestra in 1993.

On Friday night, Trampler joined Metamorphosen for both Vivaldi's "Concerto No. 3 for Viola d'Amore" and Benjamin Britten's "Lachrymae." While the group itself has evolved, Trampler underwent a true transformation in his two solo outings.

An absence of balance and a conspicuous lack of preparedness marked the Vivaldi. Trampler could only elicit a thin, bare sound from his period instrument even in the most declamatory of the solo passages. Metamorphosen dutifully played the accompaniment--an unusually sharp and pointed one--at exceedingly low volume while Trampler edged along, often missing articulations and intonations. The tuttis, however, brought the booming force of more modern string instruments to bear against Trampler's tiny sound in an almost embarrassing contrast.

The Britten that followed effectively saved the day. Trampler, clearly more comfortable with a familiar piece and his fabled gigantic viola, brought conviction and more strength (though even more couldn't have hurt) to the dominating solo part.

Rather than playing a strict accompaniment, Metamorphosen took more of an environmental role. At times, they supplied the mountainous backdrop through which Trampler's determined melodies echoed. In other sections, such as the repeated ascensions that lead to the piece's towering climax, they became a rain-swept storm, resisting or propelling the soloist capriciously.

Metamorphosen also spun its more impressionistic sounds in the program's opening work, the world premiere of Elena Ruehr's "Shimmer." The title is hardly programmatic, since no word could better describe the texture of the piece (unless the reviewer has unconsciously fallen victim to suggestion). Though the structure of Ruehr's work was difficult to discern, its series of crests and ebbs made use of time-honored techniques of string orchestration. For instance, convincingly brass-like timbres often poured forth from the violas. Apart from an exaggerated consciousness of the piece's beats, especially in the several fugal sections, one could fairly say that Metamorphosen.

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