Ambrosia Trio's Mozart at VWC
Beethoven, Martinu & Schumann
Piazzolla & Bach


Ambrosia Quartet Plays Shostakovich and Dixon

      What Dr. Paul Mansheim wanted for his sixtieth birthday celebration was a new composition for string quartet. What he also wanted was a performance showcasing the new piece that he could share with family, friends and the community. On Monday evening, September 12, 2005 he got his wish.

      The concert was at the Unitarian Church of Norfolk where the Ambrosia Quartet opened the program with John Dixon's Suite for String Quartet on Ecclesiastical Themes, commissioned by Dr. Mansheim. The uncomplicated joy of this composition was in sharp contrast to the emotional firestorm of Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, op. 110 that followed.

The ecclesiastical themes used in the Suite were selected by Dr. Mansheim; the first five movements are based on his favorite Gregorian chants which he sang for Mass as a boy. When he married Renée Adler, whose parents fled Germany in the 1930's, he converted to Judaism, from which the final two themes are taken. Mr. Dixon is Executive Director of the Academy of Music, a non-profit, community music school based in Norfolk and organist at Providence Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach. He showcases the warm tones of stringed instruments with Yun Zhang as first violinist. I especially liked his innovative use of plucked strings during the entire third movement, Ninth Century Kyrie. The cello played by Rebecca Gilmore opens the movement with the bowed musical line which is punctuated by the plucked strings of Jennifer Snyder's viola in the slow, stately dance. At times she was joined by second violinist Mayu Cipriano, plucking strings. In another movement the lush beauty and relaxed tempo reminded me of Correlli's Christmas Concerto. With very little contrast in tempo or dynamics, the music created in this listener a trusting openness for what was to follow.

      Following a pause, but without intermission, the opening notes of the Shostakovich piece evoked a feeling of grief. Later the cello created for me the image of a propeller-driven airplane flying into a picture of gray skies and somber, dull landscape followed by the abrasive assault of all four instruments screaming out an anxiety of alarm triggered by this intruder. The tones were rich and full under the agitated surface. There was a crisp dialogue between the first violin and the viola, briefly igniting a sense of hope. The rich complexity is interrupted by a three-note staccato motif, a threatening knock on the door that recurs again and again. A tentative quality of a lyrical song comes to reassure us. Can we believe the assault is over? No. Stabbing chords punctuate the chromatic violin theme once again. The sarcasm that follows is a way of coping with the feelings evoked by a quartet that the composer dedicated "to the victims of fascism and war."

      Of the two recordings in my collection, one by Kronos Quartet - Black Angels (Nonsuch 9 79242-2) , I prefer the one played by the Borodin String Quartet which often performs the work in concert. There is a statement in the booklet of their EMI recording (CD 7475072) telling how they once performed it for Mr. Shostakovich in his home. "As the work drew to a close, they noticed him slumping ever lower; finally, as the music fell silent, he was left in oblivious wretchedness with his head in his hands." The precise ensemble playing of the live performance had more bite than either recording. The experience has a cleansing effect - having faced horrors through the music we can release the pain to face whatever the future brings.

From the opening spoken introduction by John Dixon to the reception that featured an array of hand made desserts, the evening was a gala celebration of both Dr. Mansheim's birthday and the commitment he and Renée have made to the cultural life of our community.

Ambrosia Trio's Mozart

      Another excellent example of Mozart's chamber music was included in the Ambrosia Trio's recital at Virginia Wesleyan College on January 30, 2006 at Hofheimer Theater where we heard the Divertimento trio for Violin, Viola and Cello, K. 563. Written in 1788, the facile glitz of some of his early music that charms us still is replaced by a serious probing energy. It was a masterful performance by violinist Yun Zhang, violist Jennifer Snyder and cellist Rebecca Gilmore. Opening with an Allegro movement that is stately and somber, the Adagio movement is operatic, the third movement - Menuetto & Trio - is a sermon where the two themes are at cross purposes and are never able to take flight. In the Andante movement the folk theme is passed in solo variations, followed by a second Menuetto and Trio with a coda. The closing Allegro movement is a pastoral melody. The instruments play against each other, sometimes ferociously and resolutions are unpredictable. The joy that is so much a part of Mozart's music is just barely out of reach. We learned in conversation afterwards that it was quite a challenge for the players.

      Ambrosia closed with Mozart and opened with Divertimento in D Major for Violin, Viola and Cello by a contemporary of Mozart, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, (1739 -1799). The program also included 's Deandle is harb auf mi by Richard Strauss (1864 -1949) and a very modern Trio, Opus 201 by Alan Hovanhess (1911-2000), an American composer of Armenian and Scottish parentage. His musical palette is exotic, oriental and modern with no set rhythmic markers. We found it to be delightful.

The Ambrosia 3's Friendly Evening of Music Making

      The Ambrosia 3 created a warm, inviting evening of chamber pieces at Chandler Hall on February 3, 2007. Violinist Simon Lapointe, violist Jennifer Snyder and cellist Rebecca Gilmore offered three interesting, accessible works. The members of the string trio play with the Virginia Symphony but as Mr. Lapoint pointed out in conversation, chamber music offers more detailed, intimate music making.

      A sixteen year old Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) wrote Serenade in D Major, Op. 8 which was published in Vienna in 1797. The seven short movements offer great musical variety. The elements of Beethoven's later works were there in the first movement. Later movements showed how he extended the Viennese classical tradition of Mozart and Haydn. The third and later movements were typical of the whole evening with its lovely and most satisfying playing.

      A duet written by Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, Op. H313, was a rhythmic dialogue of great energy. Martinu created imaginative music and the second section, Poco Andante, is played tremolo throughout with occasional pizzicato highlights. Until last evening my only experience of music by Martinu was seven short art songs on a CD of Gabriela Benacková singing Czechoslovakian art songs. With a little research I learned that Martinu is one of the twentieth century's most prolific composers. Born in East Bohemia, he died in Switzerland in 1959 where he was being treated for cancer. Gifted musically, he wanted to be a composer, not a concert performer and was kicked out of Prague Conservatory where he was a violin student for "incorrigible negligence." Two years later in 1912 his first piano piece was published. He worked as a music teacher during World War I and wrote over 120 pieces of music - most of little value says the Grove Dictionary, my source for this brief biography.

      Eventually he settled in Paris (1923) where he took lessons with Roussel and kept writing music. As his individual style developed his music became better known. In 1931 he married a dressmaker who made it economically possible for him to continue composing. He found his voice in his Czech nationalism so much so that he was blacklisted by the Nazis and had to flee Paris in 1940, leaving everything behind including manuscripts. After a difficult year of wandering he escaped to the United States.

      Serge Koussevitzky commissioned his First Symphony in 1942 and one each year until1946. By then he was offered a professorship in Prague where the Communists were in power. He traveled in Europe but took the composition chair offered at Princeton University. The duet we heard was composed in 1958, the year he was admitted to the hospital for cancer.

      Each piece was preceded by a brief introduction by a member of the trio. Jennifer Snyder in her sweet, charming way introduced the Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47, pointing out that the third movement, Andante cantabile, with its lovely melodic flow is the ideal that the trio strives toward in all their music making. With guest pianist Amanda Halstead joining the trio, this busy piece filled the hall with beautiful playing. The well coordinated performance of these talented young players pleased this audience of mostly college age listeners, though even we older folks took away with us a sense of a complete and happy experience. See the Ambrosia 3 website at for biographies and a history of the group.

Ambrosia 3 Plays Piazzolla and Bach

      April 13, 2007. It is 8 p.m. Friday evening and by just being in this safe space of Chandler Hall where we have taken many musical journeys, I begin to relax from a hectic work week. The opening music by Astor Piazzolla (b.1921, Mar del Plata, Argentina) features guest saxophonist James Nesbit, a freelance performer and busy Tidewater teacher, in Quartet for Soprano Saxophone and String Trio. Piazzolla, here arranged by A. Regni, has kept alive and expanded tango, the indigenous Argentine dance form and raised it to art music. There are pop tunes and the sweet sound of strings with their sensuousness contrasted with astringent sections to communicate danger.

      Ken Hunt, who wrote liner notes for Kronos Quartet's CD Five Tango Sensations (Nonsuch 9 79254-2) has written "Piazzolla brought to tango influences as diverse as jazz, contemporary classicism and Italian opera, out of which he distilled neuvo tango ("New Tango") . . . his music sang a more urgent, radical song. His song did not always please. It challenged. It aroused passions." The playing was wonderful with accurate intonation and a sense of camaraderie among the trio and Mr. Nesbit.

      Ambrosia String Quartet was formed when a group of friends came together in the fall of 2002. Cellist Rebecca Gilmore and violist Jennifer Snyder are the remaining founders and are now joined by violinist Simon Lapointe to make up the string trio Ambrosia 3. All three are Virginia Symphony players.

      So why did they choose to play a transcription of the Goldberg Variations BWV 988 by J.S. Bach (1685-1750)? Bach published the piece in 1741-42 for harpsichord. A copy of the thirty variations on an original theme ("Aria mit verschiedenen Veraederungen" - Aria with different variations) was given to Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) who was harpsichordist for a local nobleman and thus the name. It is doubtful the piece was commissioned by Goldberg.

      Fast forward to 1955 when Columbia Records issued a recording by Glenn Gould (1933-1982) who is perhaps Canada's best known classical music superstar. Such esoteric repertory and yet it was an immediate popular and critical success. Earlier recordings by Wanda Landowska and Roslyn Tureck left the impression that the work was austere, semi-scholarly and best suited to theoretical analysis. Then came Gould's urgent, vibrant, strutting and downright sexy recording. Gould revisited the Variations and made a digital recording in 1982, incorporating his later thoughts on the piece. The first recording is 38 minutes, 26 seconds. The last is 51 minutes, 41 seconds.

      After the performance, in conversation with Simon Lapointe, who studied violin with Martin Beaver at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, we learned that Beaver has recorded this arrangement as part of a string trio for Canadian Broadcasting Company Records. The arrangement is by violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky (b.1954) born in Soviet Russia and now an American citizen. The transcription (1984) is inscribed "To the memory of Glen Gould." Gould's style echoes throughout the piece and that is why it sounded so right. I listened in wonder as Bach held my attention through fifty minutes of variations. I have since concluded that the reason is the variety he creates in service to the music without bombast, aggression or other tricks used by later composers.

Ambrosia Says Goodbye to Jennifer Snyder Kozoroz

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