Onyx chamber players build a bridge to the Romantic era

By Gigi Yellen

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Piano Trio in D Minor Op. 11 added interest and drama to the Onyx Chamber Players’ season-long commemoration of her brother Felix’s birth-bicentennial, and the death-bicentennial of their musical grandpapa, Franz Josef Haydn. Rolling in like ominous thunder, the piano part in this mature (1846) work of Ms. Mendelssohn Hensel underlines a lyrical theme, a big open melody for the cello, in the manner of the piano figure in Schubert’s famous song “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.”

“A bridge to the Romantic era,” is how pianist David White described Fanny Mendelssohn’s music, in his spirited remarks before the concert on Sunday afternoon May 16. He also described Fanny’s considerable contributions to her younger brother’s works.

Happily, there’s more about that contribution in a new biography, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn by R. Larry Todd (© 2010, Oxford University Press) with extensive documentation of this powerful relationship between equally talented, but unequally privileged musical siblings. The book is filled with detailed musical analyses of Fanny’s work, including the intriguing trio Onyx played. During intermission, I showed it to pianist Judith Cohen, who was in the audience, and her eyes lit up.

Onyx gave Fanny’s Op. 11 a loving reading, especially in the open-hearted cello playing of Meg Brennand. Her singing tone marked with notable intelligence the difference between this lyrical, dramatic work and the crisp good humor of the 1793 Haydn trio (in G minor/major Hob. XV: 19) that opened the concert. A smart programming choice, this transition, from the Presto finale of the Haydn to the opening Allegro molto vivace of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s work.

An extended violin/piano duet in the Fanny Mendelssohn trio gave violinist James Garlick one of his moments in the sun. Garlick’s singing tone kept wonderful company with David White’s thrilling cadenzas in the second of the two Haydn Piano Trios on the program (both written as entertainments for his fans in London in the 1790s). There was some nice ensemble playing, led by the violin, in Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet in b minor, Op. 3, a mature work by a 15-year-old. Not only does the work reflect the deep influence of Johann Sebastian Bach on Felix (which Todd traces back two generations in his and Fanny’s family, by the way), but, as White so astutely pointed out in his opening remarks, it looks forward to the mature work of Brahms. Joining Onyx for the Op. 3 was their longtime collaborator, the violist J. Melvin Butler. The quartet’s rollicking finale—did Felix Mendelssohn ever catch his breath?—delighted both them and the audience.

An attractive and joyous player, Garlick, as the junior member of Onyx, could learn a lot from pianist White’s precision and focus. A suggestion: look more at your fellow musicians, and less at the audience.

Speaking of the audience, Town Hall seats over 800 people, and this concert, like the earlier ones in Onyx’s season, drew just over 100. Of course, it was a sunny Sunday afternoon. It would be great if Onyx could perform in a hall half this size, and better share the intimacy of its performances. Meanwhile, there’s one more concert left in this season of Haydn/Mendelssohn celebrations by Onyx. It’s June 20, at Town Hall, and I’m glad to report it’s an evening performance. And congratulations to Town Hall on winning that big grant for renovation!


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