Which is a shame, because Feltner assembled a stellar cast. The impressive coloratura soprano Barbara Kilduff was the rather mousy Isabella (though everyone refers to her as a willful, fire-breathing custom-breaker). Bass-baritone Paul Guttry was her beloved Jack (when he announces that he’s feeling tired and is going to bed, we know we’ve seen the last of him). Tenor Ray Bauwens (his strong voice too long missing from the Boston scene) was stuck with a demeaning cartoon depiction of the distinguished art historian Bernard Berenson, Gardner’s advisor, as a total charlatan (“A soupçon of skullduggery, with just a hint of thuggery,” is how he describes himself). Baritone Paul Soper, soprano Jacqueline Viña, and tenor Salvatore Atti were lively presences in smaller roles. And mezzo-soprano Janna Baty injected her usual energy into the stock satirical image of a proper Boston matron called Boston Matron. Feltner led his fine players with fervent advocacy, but stage director Kirsten Cairns had the best moment of all, the final one, when the curtain descended on Isabella turning into the portrait of her by John Singer Sargent in the Gardner Museum. Sunday in the Park with Isabella?
On a happier note, the elegant and gutsy Parker String Quartet played a superlative benefit concert for Amnesty International at the Longy School. Just a clue as to how good they are: a member of the Borromeo String Quartet was in the audience. The program was Haydn’s spirited late Lobkowitz Quartet (Op. 77, No. 1), Kurtág’s extraordinary 12 Microludes (some of them no longer than a few seconds, but even the shortest combining mystery, beauty, and power), and Brahms’s A-minor Quartet, in which the refinement (the clear balances, with a kind of deference to who was playing what) and that gutsiness so thoroughly complemented each other that instead of being inundated by the usual thick tidal wave of undifferentiated sound, you could hear every note and still get swept away by the creative energy behind even the most contemplative and melancholy passages.
And speaking of superlatives, at the Goethe-Institut, pianist Sergey Schepkin, one of the founding members of the Chameleon Arts Ensemble (and an artist who should be a lot better known than most of the current crop of celebrity pianists), has returned to Boston from a stint in Pittsburgh, and joined another co-founder, violinist Joanna Kurkowicz (maybe best known here as concertmaster of the Boston Philharmonic), in a thrilling — full-bodied, warm-blooded, rhythmically slippery (a friend called it “devilish”) — Beethoven A-minor Violin Sonata (a scintillating precursor of the later and more famous Kreutzer Sonata). These old musical partners seemed to be breathing the same air, reading each other’s minds. I didn’t want it to end.
They were joined by violinist Katherine Winterstein and two of Boston’s most prized freelancers, violinist Scott Woolweaver and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer (the Boston Phil’s principal cellist), for a rare opportunity to hear one of the best works of the little-played Ernest Bloch, his complex, large-scale 1923 Piano Quintet, in a performance that was as tender as it was ferocious, as expansive as it was intimate, as mysterious as it was open-hearted. Not just because my chances of hearing it again are small, but given Woolweaver’s ominous yet seductive quarter-tones, Kurkowicz’s rhapsodic effusions on her fabulous Guarnerius, Popper-Keiser’s deep warmth, and Schepkin’s roiling underpinnings and enchanted bird songs, I doubt I’ll ever hear it played better.
These marvels were preceded by Samuel Barber’s 1956 Summer Music, for wind quintet, skillfully delivered though I missed some emotional or atmospheric urgency, and Derek Bermel’s colorful 2004 Bulgarian-folk-music-inspired Tied Shifts. Would it be asking too much to wish these pieces were either as economically complex as the Beethoven or as richly impassioned as the Bloch?