You invite a few friends over. Maybe there are drinks, and before long someone breaks out the Brahms sextets. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
When chamber music moves from the parlor into the concert hall, along with it come professional expectations. But anyone who has been around these parts much recognized that many of the players on stage at the Perelman Theater on Friday night have had various kinds of professional and personal entanglements over the years. The concert of the Brahms B Flat Major and G Major string sextets was convened by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and on its marketing materials a photo of Pamela Frank was a lure. The popular violinist showed up, but played second violin.
Did it matter? Only somewhat. Jaime Laredo played first. Laredo represented what you might call the elder-statesman flank of the assembled forces; he won the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition at age 17 in 1959. His wife, Sharon Robinson, was one of the cellists. Her brother Keith was the other cellist. Laredo and Frank are familiar from the Curtis Institute — he was her teacher there — and so the evening felt like a visit of old friends.
There is value to this, and the audience's embrace was a warm one. Concerts are undeniably social affairs. But they are musical ones first and foremost, and even listening with gentle ears, with a certain confirmation bias expectant of a close rapport among players, it would be hard to say this was an evening with many great moments.
I do love Frank. In moments where her part granted prominence, she was the author of some beautifully shaped, purposeful phrasing. But overall, the String Sextet in B Flat Major, Opus 18 was rather sleepy. Tempos were slow (though the group knew how to speed up for finish-line effect at the end). Sometimes slower tempos will reveal details in phrasing or dynamics that might be otherwise missed, but here the tempo choices seemed to simply wallow.
Youth was the bright spot. Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, in the first viola chair, was assured, right on the beat, and had a refined charisma. Thank goodness she was there to whip up the energy in the last stretch of the Opus 18. Nokuthula Ngwenyama took the first viola part in the String Sextet in G Major, Op. 36, and was an equally absorbing if slightly more controlled kind of player. Laredo had moments of difficulty, though there is still an urgency in his playing that can be quite appealing. Sharon Robinson triumphed, but you could hear the struggle behind it.
The tempos were more wisely chosen in the G Major Sextet. The mysteries of the opening came across strongly, and various players had moments of individualization in the third movement. Both sextets, though, were generally short on the kind of highly detailed personal opinions you want to hear from players in this lavishly spirited music. It's the reason, after all, you have friends in the first place.