Picture “Montana music,” and you might get an image of a cowboy with a guitar, or perhaps a Native American drum circle. What probably doesn’t spring to mind is a chamber group playing Bach. The Montana Chamber Music Society (MCMS) has been working to change that mental picture for over 30 years. This Thursday, Sept. 15 with the support of the MCMS, the Muir String Quartet gave a stellar performance at Reynolds Recital Hall.
The MCMS is currently in its eighth season, and has become a staple for classical music fans in Bozeman. Beginning in July at the Montana Chamber Music Festival, the society presents concerts all over Montana. The MCMS is composed of a range of artists — the Muir String Quartet, cellist and director Michael Reynolds, pianist Philip Aaberg, violinist Angella Ahn, clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein and cellist Sara Stalnaker.
The Muir String Quartet is only one branch of the entire MCMS, but it’s an incredibly well-known group. The quartet was founded in 1980 after its members graduated from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. They have won a Grammy, performed on national television for President Reagan and taught both nationwide and abroad. The group has been artist-in-residence at Boston University since 1983, and gives summer workshops at the legendary Tanglewood Institute. Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, who collaborated for the concert, is a renowned virtuoso and professor at the University of Minnesota. He has also achieved global recognition, performing with orchestras of Tokyo, Jerusalem, Vienna, Poland, Denmark, China and many others. The combined resumes are certainly impressive — but it takes a firsthand experience to truly appreciate the talent of the musicians.
The concert led off with the quartet performing selections from Bach’s “Art of Fugue.” A fugue consists of multiple instruments overlapping the same melody. The beauty of the music is developed by the way the melodies interweave and develop new characteristics with the other instruments — and the pieces were masterfully handled. At times, a solo instrument would rise as the others fell gently away, and it would form a new melody as the others joined in again. There was never any precedence given to one instrument — violins, violas and cellos rose and fell in beautiful union, even while all playing different lines.
The next piece was Beethoven’s “Trio for Strings in C Minor.” From the dark beginning lines, the piece was brooding. At times there were joyous passages that rang forth, but as a whole the work was swirling, dark and wavering. Like Bach’s fugues, Beethoven often used call-and-answer melodies which take on new meaning as they are interwoven. Lucia Lin’s violin would begin a phrase, followed by Reynold’s cello and Steven Ansell’s rich viola. Or, Reynolds would take the lead, and the violin and viola would chime in in perfect unison.
For the final piece, Carl Maria von Weber’s “Quintet for Clarinet and Strings,” the quartet was joined by Fiterstein. The work was swift, emotional and as with the others, masterfully executed. In chamber music, it is easy to let the odd instrument stand out. In this piece, since the clarinet was the only woodwind, dominating the piece would be easy. But the group avoided this tendency — the clarinet was blended beautifully with the strings, and was equally tender and powerful.\
Though chamber music may not be the first impression of Montana music, it should be near the top. The state — and MSU especially — is lucky to be graced by such talented and powerful musicians. As it brings classical music to the Last Best Place, the MCMS is slowly and steadily changing what it means to see a concert in Montana.