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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Frank Almond Returns to Wisconsin Lutheran

‘8 is Enough’ reaches lyrical heights

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The final Frankly Music concert of the season was performed last week at Wisconsin Lutheran College. Most in the audience certainly were aware of the events of the previous concert at this venue, after which the Stradivarius violin Frank Almond plays was stolen. The story traveled around the world. As everyone knows, the violin was soon recovered, and perhaps we have more appreciation of the instrument and its sound as Almond plays it since.

The concert, titled “8 Is Enough,” featured two major octets. Franz Schubert’s Octet in F is for an uncommon instrumentation, for clarinet, horn, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello and bass (modeled after Ludwig van Beethoven’s septet, which excludes viola). The piece rarely has an orchestral texture. Rather, it is an expansive and extended dialogue between instruments. The second movement calls to mind Schubert’s most famous composition, the song “Ave Maria,” with a melody first beautifully played on clarinet by Todd Levy, then passed to equally beautiful playing by Almond on violin. This was a wonderful performance all around, with Matthew Annin on horn, Theodore Soluri on bassoon, and Andrew Raciti on bass.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings is an early masterwork in the composer’s output. It shares magical characteristics with Mendelssohn’s most famous music, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first movement of this octet, particularly, was the high point of the concert, played so well by the excellent ensemble. Almond’s singing solo work lifted the music to lyrical heights. He was joined by David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, violinists Isabella Lippi and Stefan Hersh, violists Nicolò Eugelmi and Mario Gotoh, and cellists Susan Babini and Adrien Zitoun. Almond has an impresario’s gift for putting together talent, and for years has shown an unfailing commitment to bringing in players of high quality, raising Frankly Music to a high international standard in chamber music.

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Susan Babini is one of the most intriguing talents in town. Her playing is infused with passion and unusually sensitive phrasing. On stage she is a strong, expressive presence, contrasting with a reserved personality observed in a few encounters off-stage. Fascinating.