By Lawrence Budmen

Finnish nationalism found musical expression in the works of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The main theme of his tone poem "Finlandia" became Finland's national anthem. In seven symphonies and numerous orchestral scores, Sibelius revealed a uniquely personal artistic voice. His songs and chamber music are rarely performed. Yet the composer considered these more intimate works an important component of his cultural legacy. Sibelius's "String Quartet in D Minor," Opus 56 ("Intimate Voices") received a rare performance at the New World Symphony's chamber music series on November 9, 2002 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach. 

The quartet - composed in 1908 and 1909 - was the composer's last substantial chamber music score. From the very first notes of "Intimate Voices" we hear those quintessential misty string tones - a signature of the composer's orchestral scores. Sibelius's trademark sound clusters are adapted ingenuously to four string instruments - evocations of snow capped mountains and icy streams. The climax of the first movement Andante - Allegro molto moderato is a striking, impassioned outburst of symphonic proportions. The Vivace shimmers in glittering high string lines. The heart of this unique score is the austerely beautiful Adagio di molto - a gorgeous melodic outpouring worthy of Tchaikovsky. An agitated Allegretto (ma pesante) leads to the concluding Allegro. The rustic vigor of this movement recalls Grieg's "Norwegian Dances." The contrapuntal writing in the finale is as intricate and complex as in Beethoven's late string quartets. The harmonic adventurousness of this music foreshadows Sibelius's later Seventh Symphony and his final tone poem "Tapiola." This quartet is a powerful, strongly personal musical statement - a unique work in the Sibelius oeuvre. Four brilliantly gifted young players (Joseph Meyer and Eva Kozma, violins; Anthony Devroye, viola; and Bjorn Ranheim, cello) gave an intense, riveting account of this neglected masterwork. The warm, lava inflected tones of the string playing were the hallmark of subtle, deeply musical performance. 

The theme of the program was "Northern Lights" combining the Sibelius rarity with two familiar works of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Meyer, Kozma, Devroye, and Ranheim gave a spacious, eloquent reading of the second movement Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky's "String Quartet No.1 in D Major," Opus 11. The warmth and fervor of their playing gave this familiar music a freshly minted glow. How wonderful to hear young players bring such enthusiasm to this music! 

Tchaikovsky's "Piano Trio in A Minor," Opus 50 is one of the mainstays of the chamber music repertoire. This music is prime Tchaikovsky, brimming with melodic beauty and brilliant instrumental writing. The concluding Theme and Variations is a textbook demonstration of the form - overflowing with musical invention and subtle contrasts of light and shade. Violinist Alexander Zhuk - a native of the Netherlands and a graduate of the Utrecht Conservatory and Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory - led a blazing account of this Russian musical gem. Zhuk's crystalline singing tone and virtuoso dash anchored a glowing performance. Pianist Ciro Fodere (from Uruguay via the College of Charleston and Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University) played with sparkling lightness and true musical sensitivity. His Chopin mazurka variation had an aristocratic elegance and sheer joy that was intoxicating. Fodere also exhibited commanding pianistic power - a musical standout. Cellist Theodore Harvey (from Indianapolis and a graduate of the Indiana University School of Music and New York's Julliard School) played with a darkly burnished tone and warmly expressive affinity for the romantic idiom. Together Zhuk, Fodere, and Harvey were dynamic. Every note and bar was deeply felt and imbued with the artists' passionate response to Tchaikovsky's music.

The concert was dominated by soaring, rich toned string playing. These young musicians play chamber music with the aplomb and musical depth of veterans. The D Minor String Quartet of Sibelius was a fascinating, highly original creation by one of the 20th century's most distinctive creative voices. An afternoon of exhilarating music making! 

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