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Schubertiade in Cincinnati

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 19, 2007 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2007

Nokuthula Ngwenyama
"Schubertiade." Nokuthula Ngwenyama. Arpeggione.
   The words may have needed some definition, but the musical message was clear at Sunday afternoon's Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra concert at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine.
   The event was a "Schubertiade," a concert devoted to the music of Franz Schubert (named after the intimate gatherings held during the
composer's lifetime to hear and perform his music).
   Guest artist was violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama in Schubert's 1824 "Arpeggione" Sonata in A Minor.  The arpeggione, now obsolete, was a six-stringed instrument, fretted and tuned like a guitar, but held and bowed like a cello.
   It brought a lovely end to the CCO's two-part "Schubertiade" begun in October.  CCO music director Mischa Santora conducted.
   The only work not by Schubert was Austrian composer Hugo Wolf's 1887 "Italian Serenade" arranged for solo viola and orchestra.
   Ngwenyama, 31, is one of the new stars of the once neglected viola.  Born in Los Angeles to a Zimbabwean father and a Japanese mother, "Thula" brought grace and refinement to Schubert's musical stepchild.  The arpeggione went out of style soon after its invention in 1823 because of its delicate tone quality and awkwardness in playing, but Schubert's Sonata has been adopted by cellists, double bassists, guitarists and even wind players.
   It suits the viola very well.  The music's soulfulness is quite consonant with the dark-hued voice of the alto member of the violin family.  Ngwenyama (pronounced En-gwen-ya-ma) played an 1892, 15½-inch viola by Marengo Romano Rinaldi of Turin.  With it, she projected a warm, enveloping sound that came across well in Memorial Hall's hard-edged acoustics.
   The Sonata begins with a theme very similar to the opening of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony (in B Minor, written just two years earlier in 1822).  Ngwenyama impressed this gently on the ear low on the G string before reaching into the highest register of the instrument as the work unfolded.  She spun long-breathed lines in the meditative Adagio (her audition piece for the Curtis Institute of Music at age 16, she said) and made spirited work of the genial finale.
   Wolf's 1887 "Italian Serenade," originally for string quartet, later arranged for orchestra, gives a major role to the viola.  As performed by Ngwenyama and the CSO, it was a synthesis of Wolf, the great 20th-century violist William Primrose and Santora himself, he said in remarks to the audience.  Ngwenyama put spark and sparkle in it and there were some charming solos by principal cellist Patrick Binford.
   Schubert's youthful, Mozartean Fifth Symphony will always suggest "Little Red Riding Hood" to me because it was the background music on an LP I played for my children when they were little.  Santora and the CCO brought it all to life again (and more) with a spirited, clean-textured performance.  Red skipped through the woods in the opening Allegro.  The Andante had an autumnal air I could envision leaves wafting to the ground in the final descending triad in the horns.  Woodwinds sang in the Trio of the third movement, and the wolf made his dastardly appearance in the finale
   Santora opened with Schubert's Overture "In the Italian Style," D.591, one of two overtures he wrote in response to the "Rossini craze" that struck Vienna in 1816 (Italian opera composer Gioacchino Rossini).  One of them -- which is uncertain -- was the first work by Schubert to be played in public.  D.591 (1817) is a charming piece with occasional tongue-in-cheek humor.  Schubert utilizes patter accompaniment in the cellos and even drops in a mini-crescendo (Rossini's famed technique of gradually increasing the dynamic level).  However, it remained fully Schubertian in its lyrical grace.
   Santora and the CCO resume their 2007-08 season with a Baroque Series in March.  There will be works by Handel, Hindemith, Geminiani and J.S. Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 1) March 9.  The Vocal Arts Ensemble joins the CCO March 30 for Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music," Bach's Cantata No. 202 and a concert performance of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" with mezzo-soprano Soon Cho (Dido) and tenor Mark Panuccio (Aeneas).  Both concerts are at Memorial Hall.
   "Musical Seasons" closes the CCO season in June.  Violinist Nicolas Kendall performs Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and Piazzola's "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" June 15 in the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music's Corbett Auditorium.  Final concert will be June 22 in Patricia Corbett Theater at CCM, with music by Copland, Haydn, Barber, Cincinnati composer Robert Johnson's "Three American Landscapes" (world premiere) and selections from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" with soprano Indra Thomas.  For information and tickets, call (513) 723-1182, or visit www.ccocincinnati.com.