ZACHARY LEWIS – GUEST CRITIC
By no definition does the Amphitheater qualify as a chamber. Indeed, it’s the opposite of small.
Tuesday night, however, thanks to a few talented members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the grand old gathering place served quite admirably as a venue for chamber music.
Not just any chamber music, either. Chamber music of the highest order. No matter that the Amp has no walls and a soaring roof. Playing works by Mozart, Strauss and Jessie Montgomery, the artists convinced a crowd they were the king’s band and the Amp was an intimate drawing room at the royal palace.
For a listener accustomed to hearing the full CSO, the evening amounted to a real treat. The orchestra is unquestionably an impressive force, but here was a chance to hear just the woodwinds and horns in their individual and collective glory.
They did not disappoint. Mozart and Strauss present no small challenges, but the CSO players hurdled them all with remarkable grace and sophistication. Music Director Rossen Milanov played a vital role, but in the moment, the conductor all but disappeared into readings that were organic and profoundly collaborative.
Mozart’s Wind Serenade K. 388 was a model of classical virtue. The CSO nonet struck and maintained a perfect blend and balance, and the playing was never anything less than pristinely articulate.
But this wasn’t some dry technical display. This was an insightful, expressive and often refreshingly playful reading, the sort of genuinely animated performance Mozart or any composer of the era would have loved.
One has to think Strauss, too, would have been pleased. The account of his Suite Op. 4 offered by 13 members of the CSO Tuesday was right on the Straussian money, a performance that boasted all of what distinguished the Mozart along with even richer textures, dramatic pacing and bolder virtuosity.
Time and again, the artists under Milanov proved their Strauss bona fides. The fugal finale was a marvel of clarity and insight, but across the work, the group’s pacing was flexible, its dramatic sense keen. In its playing was real warmth and marvelous color, and while every member had flattering moments in the sun, the horns in particular came off in especially regal, golden light.
That would have been enough to send listeners home happy. The late addition of Montgomery’s “Strum,” however, made the program only slightly longer but significantly more rewarding.
Woodwinds, of course, can’t strum. No, this was a piece for strings, specifically the CSO’s 2021 Diversity Fellows: violinists Yan Izquierdo and Scott Jackson; violist Edna Pierce, cellist Maximiliano Oppeltz; and bassist Amy Nickler.
In this short but highly effective single movement clearly penned by a string player, the five artists took turns offering crisp pizzicato support while the others passed around bustling, folk-style melodies. Out of a few simple ideas, they made a lively, joyous occasion.
The performance was outstanding, the last measure or two a dapper retort, but the true star of this particular show was the composer. Montgomery is already quite accomplished, but if there’s any justice in the musical world, she’s still going places far beyond Chautauqua and the Amphitheater.
Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.