Sunday, August 27, 2006

Silly jokes, serious skills

Peter De Sotto, violinist/vocalist for the Quartetto Gelato, cracked quite a few jokes between numbers in his group's performance last night at the Skaneateles Festival. Some fell flat; others generated a lot of laughs. But De Sotto's silly on-stage demeanor took nothing away from an outstanding, wide-ranging set of songs.

Due to illness, the group had to perform without its oboe/English horn player and had to alter its printed program. Clarinetist Shalom Berg added a great deal of flourish to the group's unique combination of violin, cello and accordian. This exotic blend was showcased on many numbers not listed on the program, including "Meditango," "Rondo alla Zigeuner," "Sous Le Ciel De Paris" and "Besamo Mucho" (reclaiming the song forever from Leslie Nielsen's rendition in "The Naked Gun"). The group ably shifted from propulsive dance rhythms to smooth legato playing, moving and swaying and interacting with one another.

I don't know when clarinetist Bard joined the group -- his bio, inserted into the program, showed that he is an established musician in Toronto like the other three -- but his chemistry with the other players was even more impressive than his obvious technical skill.

Accordianist Alexander Sevastian was, without question, the finest accordian player I have ever seen or heard. Before performing the Finale from von Weber's "Konzertstuck Opus 79," Sevastian took the microphone and said, "Since English is not my first language, I don't usually like to talk. But I do like to play fast notes." He then launched into the piece, which he adpated from a piano solo with orchestral accompaniment. Sevastian also provided the highlight of the first half of the concert, playing Bach's famous "Tocatta and Fugue" while De Sotto, Berg and cellist Elinor Frey took five. After he played the familiar opening passage, I said to myself, "I don't know how he's going to pull this off." But he did, tackling the piece's technical demands with furious fingerwork over the instrument's manuals.

The four musicians formed dynamic pairs throughout the evening - cello and accordian as a kind of basso continuo, violin and cello as smooth, evocative string section, violin and clarinet as nimble duettists egging each another one.
Their great skill and strong chemistry provided a greater connection to the audience than De Sotto's jokes and foot-stamping. His last comment, though, regarding the group's traditional closer "Danny Boy," hit home. He said that though the traditiona Irish song is widely performed in many different settings, "the piece always wins." But last night, it was just one in an entire set of winners.

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