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A Review of Marlboro Musicians in Philly

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Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Photo: Pete Checchia

It was such a dark and stormy night in Philly at the end of November, even the stellar Musicians From Marlboro could not tempt enough people out to fill the Perelman Theater for their first of three appearances presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Those who stayed home watching storm updates on TV missed out on a more thrilling musical tempest onstage by the Marlboros, highlighted by the earthy, windy and fiery atmospherics of Thomas Ades' Arcadiana.

But first, violinist Scott St. John, cellist Matthew Zalkind and pianist Gabriele Carcano warmed up with Beethoven's Kakadu Variations for Piano Trio, illuminating its exploratory nature. Carcano drove the piano lines with silky tempo shifts, and gave the performance lustrous immediacy. Some of his keyboard dexterity makes you wonder if Ludwig was the first jazz composer (Louis Armstrong would have agreed, since he said on more than one occasion that all music was jazz).

Seated downstage, Zalkind and John held constant eye contact with each other, and also kept their emphasis on the modernism built in Beethoven's architecture. The program note aptly calls this an "epic miniature," and Beethoven shifts from his signature noble statements, to Mozartian, and back to metaphysical profundity, all compellingly conjured by these musicians.

Next, violist Emily Deans and violinist Michelle Ross joined Zalkind and St. John for Ades' Arcadiania, Deans noting beforehand that the composer returned to the Marlboro Festival in 2010 to work directly with them on the technical demands of the piece. The quartet logged a record 72 rehearsal hours, and the detailing, as played, is electric. Deans described it as a "musical puzzle," and illustrative of earthly elements and oceanic environs. Actually, the mood indeed evoked moving through terrain, even digging, or submerging in water. There are string runs that just take off, like wending branches of a tree in time lapse film -- these eerie string effects and chromatic flares produce bending notes and shove-off-a-cliff arrests.

On the technical side, Ades plays with colliding structures, tonals, dissonance and spidery counterpoints. The Marlboro musicians throw their whole bodies into going for Acadiana's sonic dimension. Ades composed the work in 1994, around the time he composed his first opera, Powder Her Face, a work also crammed with musical ideas. Powder strikes as a work of a young composer flexing every muscle too much; Acadiana, as conjured by the Marlboros, plays as nothing less than Ades' early masterpiece.

The second half of the concert began with Gabriel Faure's Piano Trio in D minor -- with Scott, Zalkind and Carcano bathing the concert hall with lush orchestral clarity in the first and third movement. The Andantino, in contrast, read as muddy and rote, but is immediately rescued in the energy of the allegro. The string players then played Felix Mendelssohn's string quartet, and, as with the Ades' work, each musician masterfully produced music with dynamic ensemble esprit. Ross did this especially, producing such rich tones on the violin leads.

Carcano returned for the full ensemble encore of the scherzo from Dvorak's quintet for piano and strings. Rain or shine, Philly is definitely Marlboro country. There are two more Marlboro Festival tour concerts later in this season. P.C.M.S. artistic director, Miles Cohen, has packed this with a dazzling array of expansive programming with a star-studded lineup including concerts by Augustine Hadelich, Susan Graham, Jeremy Denk, Artemis Quartet, Aiylin Perez, Julietta Curenton, Julliard Quartet, Ecco, Quator Ebene, Gerald Findlay and Andre Watts, just to mention a few.