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Music Review

Marvels from Schumann and Schoenberg at Marlboro Music Festival

Geneva Lewis, Alina Kobialka, Mitsuko Uchida, Alice Neary, and Tanner Menees perform on July 27 at Marlboro Music.Allen Cohen & Pete Checchia

MARLBORO, Vt. — Marlboro Music, now in its 69th season, sends a letter to the musicians it accepts each season telling them, in part, that, “no one is guaranteed of performing.” This might seem an odd thing to tell a participant in a chamber music festival. Isn’t performance the whole point of these gatherings?

But for Marlboro, public concerts were never the goal. Rehearsal, study, and exploration have been and remain its true aims, and the festival’s uniqueness lies in the way it allows some of the world’s most talented musicians — working in ensembles that mix younger and more seasoned musicians — to delve into repertoire with all-but-unlimited time, removing the anxiety of performance deadlines. And because the five weekends of concerts present only a handful of the dozens of works rehearsed each summer, Marlboro audiences have, over the years, come to expect uncommonly high playing standards in what they do hear.


Saturday’s concert, part of the festival’s third weekend, was no exception. An unusual program was on offer: Schoenberg’s String Trio (1946) bookended by Schumann’s First String Quartet and Piano Quintet, both composed in 1842. The trio, a late masterpiece from Schoenberg’s 12-tone period, was written after the composer suffered a near-fatal heart attack, and aspects of the experience are supposedly encoded in the music.

At times the piece is exactly as harrowing as that description would indicate, the surfaces abrasive and fragmentary, the music seeming to border on chaos. Other stretches, though, are poignant, wistful, and almost tonal, a reminder that Schoenberg never left his Viennese legacy behind. The performance, by violinist Daniel Phillips, violist Tanner Menees, and cellist Alexander Hersh, was magnificent — emotionally gripping, precise in its execution, and bearing an unmistakable narrative shape even in its densest moments.

The performance of the Schumann quartet was on a similarly high level. The four players — violinists David McCarroll and Geneva Lewis, violist Zhanbo Zheng, and cellist Marcy Rosen — produced an ensemble sound that was at once warm and transparent, making audible a wealth of inner detail. The playing also teemed with rhythmic drive and intensity, making you wonder, by the end, why this piece gets less attention than Schumann’s better known chamber works.


A burly, muscular reading of the piano quintet — with Mitsuko Uchida, one of Marlboro’s artistic directors, at the piano — closed the evening. If it fell slightly short of the elevated standards of the rest of the evening, it was still notable for the explosive energy the group unleashed on the darker, minor-key episodes of this largely sunny and optimistic work.


At Persons Auditorium, Marlboro College, Marlboro, Vt., July 27.

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.