Chiaroscuro Comes to America

While travel played an increasingly important role in musical life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the great age of chamber music—most musicians spent their lives, or long stretches of them, playing more or less with the same folks: their families and friends; colleagues in court musical establishments; groups of small town amateurs; long-time members of musical societies. Some fled the familiarity of their surroundings or the oppressive princely tastes under which they labored, but most did not.

P. E. Bach spent nearly thirty years accompanying the flute-playing chamber music fanatic of a Prussian King, Frederick the Great. The repertoire was limited to works by the monarch’s favorite composers, played by the king in frustratingly meandering tempos. After the first decade of this service, Bach took in his much younger half-brother Johann Christian, who had been turned over to his care on the death of their father. It’s no wonder that, having witnessed his older brother’s musical servitude, Johann Christian set out for Italy as soon as he could and ultimately ended up in London. There he started one of the most important series of chamber music concerts with fellow émigré Carl Friedrich Abel at which subsequent staples like some of the string quartets of Joseph Haydn were premiered.

There is nothing more uplifting than chamber music, but as a form social practice it surely could and can become claustrophobic when cultivated over years with the same cohort. This much is confirmed by the infamous dissensions with which string quartets have so often been riven. While travel has played an increasingly vital role in musical culture, it is worth remembering that, like all but one the Bachs, most musicians, both professional and amateur, long resisted the centrifugal forces of ever cheaper transport and the lure of distant lands.

As I’ve noted previously in this column the Cornell International Chamber Music Festival known as Mayfest, which concluded its eighth edition last night, takes a different tack: bring in musicians from across the continent and around the world and match them up with resident court players from the adjacent principalities of Cornell University and Ithaca College, the latter founded as a conservatory in the nineteenth century and in the intervening century and some having assembled a large and gifted faculty of performers.

Artistic directors of Mayfest, Xak Bjerken and Miri Yampolsky, both pursue ambitious, geographically wide-ranging chamber music calendars of their own even while they hold down teaching positions at Cornell. Over the cosmopolitan course of their own studies and subsequent careers each has built up large networks of musical friends from whose ranks they have, over the past eight Mays, gathered diverse rosters of world-class musicians to spend a week in Ithaca to mix and mingle with the locals and together explore the seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of chamber classics augmented by a couple of newly commissioned works.

In seven concerts spread over six days, the visitors played with residents in shifting constellations that shone, in various magnitudes and colors—but always brightly. Make no mistake: both locals and visitors are stars.

This year Yampolsky summoned her longtime friends violinist Yehonatan Berick and clarinetist Chen Halevi. Born in Russia, Yampolsky, spent some of her formative musical years in Israel, that most prolific of musical hothouses. Such is the smallness of this musical world in which excellence attracts excellence, that Berick was for several years a member with Bjerken of the Los Angles Piano Quartet. Berick is now professor of violin at the University of Ottawa, and Halevi is on the faculty of the Trossingen Hochschule für Musik. Both are much in demand as soloists and chamber players and one feels lucky to have such talent spend a week in the verdant vernal provinces of Upstate New York.

Throughout the festival Halevi could be heard on various models: for a performance on period instruments of Mozart’s sublime and beloved clarinet quintet he used a muted basset horn that looked rather like an enormous tobacco pipe, the bell (or bowl, if you’re still thinking of the instrument as pipe) tucked between his thighs; an early nineteenth-century style clarinet with just a few keys was unpacked for the perky if longwinded Mendelssohn sonata in E-flat done with venerable local hero Malcolm Bilson playing on a copy of a Viennese piano from the 1820s; and a modern black one for the late-in-life revelations of Brahms’ clarinet trio in A minor. On the Brahms, Halevi was joined Bjerken on piano, a Californian native who, along with his love of contemporary music harbors an expansive sensibility for the music of Mittel-Europa, its outpourings and introspections. So naturally did this trio, completed by Albany native Clancy Newman on cello, inhabit this music of loss and possibility that one would have thought its members had played together for years rather than simply a few hours. Newman is a much-travelled musician, who won the prestigious Naumburg Competition back in 2001; Berick came second at the Naumburg in 1993, though twenty years on it’s hard to imagine anyone beating him at any aspect of the violin game.

With irrepressible humor and sprezzatura, Berick could be heard over these six days in a dazzling array of contexts: with Yampolsky urging him on at the cabaret night that comes in the midst of festival, he sprinted with the sprites through the exuberant pyrotechnics of Antonio Bazzini’s Scherzo fantastitque. There is no more outlandish a nineteenth-century showpiece, and no more impish a master of it than Berick, the dazzle of his bow and fingers of his left hand matched by the winking humor of his wonderfully warm and expressive face.

Among Berick’s many other Mayfest contributions was his participation in Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C minor with Yampolsky, Newman, and violist David Quiggle, a recently repatriated from long stint in Spain to take up a professorship at Ithaca College. This Mayfest quartet gave a magisterial, moving, and at times, fittingly turbulent reading of the work’s refined romantic effusions and lovelorn reveries.

Berick and Halevi ganed up with five Ithacans to form the septet for the festival’s concluding piece, Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, narrated with husky panache by local thespian Kristin Sad. That soldier plays a little violin and meets another fiddler while on leave—the devil himself. Berick frolicked through the score’s wild syncopations with demonic ease, his playing juxtaposing ironic modernism and folksy charm.

All these musicians were matched in various configurations with the real revelation that issued from this year’s festival: the Chiaroscuro Quartet. Having just received the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik in the chamber music category —one of the classical world’s highest honors—for its freshly minted recording of quartets by Mozart and Mendelssohn, this group of young European musicians who met in London rockets towards richly deserved fame—but thankfully does so by way of Ithaca and Mayfest.

Unfortunately, I had to miss the opening concert kicked off by the Chiaroscuro, because I was participating in a Moog Synthesizer 50th anniversary bash elsewhere. But later that night and before the next afternoon’s concert Mayfest was buzzing with talk of the ensemble’s astonishing confrontation with quartets Haydn and Mendelssohn. When I did hear Chiaroscuro the next evening in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet I too was thunderstruck by thrilling, often extreme contrast of musical light and dark from which the group takes its name. The hollow whispers of their pianissimos could not be softer or more intense, and elicit a range of emotions from panic to transcendence and everything in between. All depends on what is required by the collective will of their always-unpredictable, always-compelling interpretations. And as a result of these murmurs and group soliloquies the coruscating passagework that inevitably erupts seems all the brighter, electric, joyous. The risks taken by this group are enormous—and therefore, too, the exhilarations.

The group’s second violinist, Spaniard Pablo Hernán Benadì celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday during the festival. He’s the junior member of this young quartet that has been going for a decade, and Hernán has been in the group for half of that time. That these musicians have already transformed the way we hear the string quartet—the core of the chamber music repertory—speaks to their limitless potential.

In the spirit of Mayfest Chiaroscuro’s members were put on the others participants’ dance cards. Berick took up his viola and joined the excellent and edgy Chiaroscuro violist Emilie Hörnlund in the middle of the texture of Brahms sumptuous Sextet in in B-Flat. That work was preceded by Chiaroscuro first violinist Alina Ibragimova’s epic, visionary performance of Bach’s Sonata in C Major for solo violin. On the concert that ended with “Death and the Maiden,” Hernán Benadì and cellist Claire Thirion teamed with Bjerken, who played that same 1820s Viennese piano, for a bracing rendering of Beethoven’s “Ghost” trio, shouting and shimmering even though the gut strings of violin and cello were under heavy assault by the evening’s extreme humidity.

That Mayfest was responsible for bringing Chiaroscuro to America for the very first time will redound to the festival’s glory, and has already spawned ardent hopes of a return spring trip to Ithaca by this fabulous foursome.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at