Boston Artists Ensemble bring verve and style to retooled program

March 26, 2022 at 2:59 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Antonin Dvořák’s “American” quartet was performed by the Boston Artists Ensemble Friday night in Salem.

While cancellations continue to plague ensembles that have returned to live concerts, some organizations manage to make last-minute adjustments to their scheduled programs with polished, even arresting, results.

Such was the case Friday night, when the Boston Artists Ensemble was altered its planned program of Haydn and Schubert after two performers withdrew for undisclosed reasons. In place of Schubert’s seminal String Quintet, the players mounted Beethoven’s String Trio, Op. 9, no. 3 and Dvořák’s String Quartet, Op. 96, alongside a familiar Haydn work, at Salem’s Hamilton Hall.

The “American” quartet is one of Dvořák’s most remarkable efforts, combining folk-like melodies with old-world zest and grandeur. Even on the fly, the Boston Artists Ensemble has a fine feel for this score. Pristine balances revealed both humor and dramatic intensity. Yet there was always a sense of spontaneity, as if the music were composing itself in real time.

The players delivered all of the work’s bucolic serenity. The folksy melodies took on soulful vigor, with transitions throughout revealing underlying storm and stress. In the Lento, guest violinist Peter Zazofsky unfolded his line with bluesy zeal, the music building its tension gradually over the long run. The remaining movements sounded with exuberance. The Molto Vivace took on rustic vitality; the finale unfolded in a fiery display that carried to the closing bars.

Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor delivered similar urgency. Completed in 1798, this work bears the brooding intensity that would come to define Beethoven’s middle period.

String ensembles tend to render early Beethoven with an overly rough sonority that overstates the music’s tension. But the Boston Artists Ensemble found the right amount of depth and dimension through a delicate blend and dark lyricism.

Yet there was a fluency to this reading. The Allegro coursed with balletic ease. The Scherzo was driving, the players digging in for the shifting accents. The Adagio unfolded like an aria, the musicians gently supporting violinist Lucia Lin as she tossed off melodic arabesques with assurance. The finale was swift yet searching, the player’s furious intensity only abating in the wistful conclusion.

Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 33, no. 2 offered witty counterbalance. Nicknamed “The Joke” due to its many false endings, the quartet offers jocular warmth and intimacy in equal measure.

But the players found a welcome agitation and mystery in this music. Zazofsky rendered the arpeggios of the otherwise jovial Allegro with robust flair. The Scherzo was more edgy than graceful, offset by the music-box delicacies of the Trio.

Violist Rebecca Gitter and cellist Jonathan Miller engaged in supple musical dialogue in the Largo, the inner lines from the rest of the ensemble rising to the fore in all the right moments. The gleeful interruptions in the finale’s closing measures brought laughter and applause from the audience.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline.

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