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Old Lyme — Seldom does a chamber music concert seem to fly past so quickly. But at Musical Masterworks Sunday afternoon, this must have had something to do with time and having fun.
At the end of the almost fleeting fourth concert weekend of the chamber music series at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, the musicians lingered to answer audience questions. Double bass player Shawn Conley, whose résumé combines equal parts classical, new music and jazz, was asked about the difference between playing in a jazz quintet and in the Schubert “Trout” Quintet just performed.
“Playing chamber music at this level,” Conley said, “there’s so much communication, it can feel improvised.”
The full house was intimately involved in that communication between musicians, the eye contact at key passages, the exchanged grins, the nods and the smiles of pleasure — or relief — at a key passage. They understood.
The program opened with a little oddity, Rossini’s String Sonata No. 3 in C Major, with a bass viol instead of the usual string quartet viola, written when the renowned opera composer was just 12. The quartet joined Conley with Masterworks Artistic Director and resident cellist Edward Arron and violinists Erin Keefe and Tessa Lark. A small Classical romp, it was distinguished mainly by its dark and brooding slow movement, centered on a sensitive reticence by first violinist Keefe.
The concertmaster of the fine Minnesota Orchestra, Keefe then was showcased in Bartok’s Roumanian Dances for Violin and Piano, accompanied by Bosnian-born pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Keefe muscled through the compressed expression of Transylvanian folk sounds with drama and flair, including one section in dusty, otherworldly harmonics and several quick cuts from cool reserve to rough-cut, rustic foot-stomping.
The performance of the next two works — Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz” with cellist Arron and double bassist Conley and the Schubert “Trout” — were very much about Tessa Lark.
Tall and animated, standing front and center in Sunday’s arrangement of musicians, the 24-year-old Kentuckian is that rare musician who captures the spotlight in a large ensemble with a presence that can be commanding without seeming dominating. She has the ability to take a musical score written 200 years ago and make it seem fresh and personal, as if written for her, and her mannerisms of leaning into dramatic phrases or rising to full height with bow in air for cadences feel like genuine expressions of the emotional content, devoid of ham.
Lark performs a good deal of bluegrass and has recorded with composer O’Connor, and her trio with Arron and Conley was spellbinding. This austere expression of mountain Americana opened with a gorgeous duet pairing Lark and Arron, and the three musicians wove a mood of meditative calm that captivated the full house. A cool breeze blew through the open harmonies, and as voices rose and sank almost imperceptibly through the often droning score, no argument for contemporary American composition was needed. The audience was rapt.
The program ended with that odd quintet — violin, viola, cello, bass and piano — by Schubert that has been an audience favorite for generations. Written when Schubert was 22, it lacks the at-times terrifying vision into the void that haunt some of his later works, but the “Trout” swims in a river of seemingly endless melodic invention.
When performed well, the “Trout” succeeds with a pianist who maneuvers his friends through the variations and quick cuts of dynamics and mood as pianist Schubert would have. Pianist Muzijevic made Sunday’s performance succeed. He was ideal for a small ensemble, stepping up in long piano passages with that ineffable ability to hang back, tantalizing as if falling behind, then glittering like the sunlight on the darting trout, controlling the ensemble dynamics with his ability to merge and emerge.
The five-movement “Trout,” played badly, seems endless. Sunday, it flashed by in a rush of Schubertian charm and melody after melody. At times it felt like Lark and Muzijevic, with accompaniment. But it was more … much more.