Shifrin, Orion Quartet provide sterling advocacy for Neikrug work in Boston premiere
The Celebrity Series of Boston has brought performances by world-renowned musicians to the community since it was founded in 1938, while also encouraging the creation of new works.
Saturday night in Jordan Hall, the Celebrity Series accomplished both missions in a concert that featured the Boston premiere of Marc Neikrug’s Clarinet Quintet, performed by the acclaimed Orion String Quartet and award-winning clarinetist David Shifrin. The quintet, co-commissioned by the Celebrity Series, was bookended by two works by Mozart: his String Quartet in C Major, K. 465 “Dissonant,” and his late Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581.
Refuting any idea that modern chamber compositions are dry or difficult, Neikrug’s piece had a definite coherence and accessibility, adhering to the traditional structure of a quintet, framed by two fast movements.
The first movement of the Quintet serves as a kind of introduction and introduces the motifs that will characterize the rest of the piece. Neikrug uses pizzicatos to great effect throughout the piece, a device introduced in the very first bars. The movement allows the clarinetist to show off his full range, as well as his ability to jump from the highest pitches available to the clarinet to some of its lowest. It ends with a scalar melody by the clarinet over the soft, rhythmic string quartet and figures almost as a cadenza.
The second movement is heralded by the string quartet in a dramatic introduction that is reminiscent of some of Shostakovich’s moodier works, especially in the cello line. The clarinet soon takes the lead once more in a fugal yet wide-ranging exploration of the melody. The work transitions into a short third movement, which closes in a harmonically dissonant chord that was gracefully rendered by Shifrin and the quartet.
All the elements come together in the final movement, making the structure and musical argument seem not only clear in retrospect but inevitable. The quintet ends almost playfully with the final bars played in unison by all the instruments.
The same musicians gave the world premiere of Neikrug’s quintet in Portland on June 30 of this year, and their comfort with the demanding and virtuosic work was clear in a tight and robust performance. The composer was present at the concert and seemed well pleased.
The two flanking Mozart works were similarly imbued with fresh life by the musicians’ charming and vivacious interpretation. The Menuetto of the String Quartet was notable for the Orion members’ execution of dynamics in the call and response. Shifrin was masterful in the performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with his playing in the final variations especially impressive for his technical gleam and flexible phrasing.
David Shifrin and the Orion String Quartet have had a fruitful, long-standing relationship and that close-knit musical understanding and cohesion was striking throughout Saturday’s concert.