By R.M. Campbell
Since its founding in 1924, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia has become one of the most important music conservatories in the United States. Its list of alumni, as well as faculty, represent some of the most celebrated names in music. They are everywhere, including a number in the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, like principal violist Susan Gulkis. However, the school is not as well-known to the general public as the Juilliard School in New York. Curtis on Tour, hopes to correct that and give its young, talented students an early crack on the professional stage. It made its Seattle debut last year at the Henry Chapel in the Highlands. It returned Tuesday night, with different students accompanied by two eminent faculty members — violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Peter Wiley — and its eminent president Roberto Diaz, who was principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra until his appointment to Curtis. Kavafian and Wiley played. Diaz did not, a pity, because he is such a fine musician (he played at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival the year of his appointment), although his student, Hyo Bi Sim, did, and acquitted herself with honor.
Diaz spoke briefly about the need for students to get a feel for the stage, for getting music into the bones instead of just their fingers. If last year’s concert set a precedent, one could expect a first-class performance. No need to make excuses for student work. On Tuesday, they played at a very high level. One would expect as much from Kavafian and Wiley. Sim is a student of Diaz and violinist Benjamin Beilman, a student of Kavafian. Only rarely was there tentative playing. With musicians like Kavafian and Wiley on the faculty, the students learn not only the basics but also the feeling of performing before an audience. Well-known in Seattle from her Santa Fe Chamber Music days, which once did a summer residency here, Kavafian has had a substantial career as a member of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, former member of the Beaux Arts Trio, co-founder of the revolutionary chamber group Tashi and artistic director of the Angel Fire Festival in New Mexico. She has been a member of the Curtis faculty for a dozen years. Wiley is a Curtis graduate, entering the school at age 13. His career has taken him across a good share of the Western world as a chamber musician and soloist. He succeeded David Soyer, who just died, in the Guarneri Quartet, now disbanded. He joined the Curtis faculty in 1996.
Kavafian led the ensemble in Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A, giving it all the usual Kavafian attributes — intelligence, strength, musicality and a sense of oneness with colleagues. With his extraordinary depth and beauty of sound (no wonder he was invited to joined the Guarneri), Wiley provided the base on which everything could be assembled with character, appropriate scale and a sense of propulsion. But they were not the only ones who made substantial music. The quintet gives plenty of opportunity to the violist in a variety of solos, all of which Sim took full advantage with her big, dark sound, limpid phrases and fast-moving fingers. Like Sim, the pianist Yekwon Sunwoo is from Korea. He is an astonishing musician for his age. I can’t remember when I have heard a more eloquent beginning to this famous quintet, which is essentially his solo statement. Never one to keep his method of performance in one mode, he is a master of tonal and dynamic variation. He is a poet with a big technique to back up everything he wants to do. Rarely does a percussion instrument like the piano settle so easily into a string sensibility, but he does with seeming ease. Beilman was the able second violin.
Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor opened the program. The composer has a long history with Curtis. He entered the school at 14 and was a member of its first class in 1924. The school’s founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, was one of Barber’s most devoted patrons. His composing skills were established during his first eight years at the school. He returned in 1939 as a teacher and stayed for three years. His B Minor Quartet was his only venture into the field of string quartets. If it is famous today, it is because the Adagio of the second movement was orchestrated the same year of its composition, in 1936, and given its premiere two years later under a new title of “Adagio for Strings” by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. That “Adagio” is ubiquitous in music. The quartet was given a taut, forceful reading that made the most of the materials Barber provided, making one wonder why it isn’t heard more often. The four were substantial advocates for this highly expressive, lyrical piece. Curiously the Adagio was least effective.