The Worcester Chamber Music Society’s first Spotlight Concert — the opening of a series of four hour-long, live-streamed programs the group is broadcasting this fall from Joy of Music’s Shapiro Hall — took place on Thursday night. For this inaugural installment, violist Mark Berger and pianist Randall Hodgkinson joined forces in an enticing mix of pieces by Arvo Pärt, Berger and Johannes Brahms.
The night’s most substantial offering was Brahms’ 1894 Viola Sonata no. 1. Originally written for clarinet but transcribed by the composer for viola, it’s a sober piece but a conspicuously hopeful one for a time of pandemic: The music begins in a crepuscular F minor but works its way over four movements to an exuberant conclusion in F major.
Thursday’s performance was well-directed and flexible. The lyrical viola lines in the brooding first movement sang fervently, while there was an amiable rusticity to the dancing gestures of the third. Balances between Berger and Hodgkinson seemed consistently well-judged, particularly in the Adagio, where the music’s frequent soft dynamics belied a palpable intensity to the night’s reading.
Equally engaging was the Brahms’ finale, taken at a brisk clip and exhibiting a terrific sense of emotional release. Hodgkinson’s execution of the demanding piano part there was nothing short of breathtaking.
Opening the night was Pärt’s “Fratres.” Written in 1977, the score is, perhaps, Pärt’s most familiar work, alternating spare chorales, bravura arpeggios and gently unfolding melodic lines.
On Thursday, the piece’s virtuosic viola arpeggios shimmered, while the piano’s lean, hymn-like figures provided a potent contrast. As in the Brahms, the blend between players here was impressive, nowhere more so than in the concluding duet between viola harmonics and the piano’s melodic line.
In between came the world premiere of Berger’s “Atalerix,” the first movement of a projected piano suite called “Spirit Animals” that’s inspired by the composer’s children’s house pets. Accordingly, “Atalerix” is an homage to Berger’s son’s hedgehog, Zilla.
Fittingly, it’s an engaging, whimsical little effort, running just about four minutes. The piece opens with scurrying “rodent-like” figures that give way, gradually, to chordal episodes and inquisitive melodic lines. There’s no lack of personality in it — an impish wit pervades the whole — and Berger’s writing showcases both his technical prowess and a clear command of musical shape and drama.
Hodgkinson delivered a lucid performance of this charmer. To be sure, on the merits of “Atalerix,” one looks forward to the successive installments in this cycle.
On the whole, then, this first Spotlight Concert did offer what Berger, in some introductory remarks, described as an “intimate setting” for some fine music making. True, one missed the natural resonance of the concert hall: on my end, the program’s climactic moments came across a bit too intensely, particularly in the Pärt.
But, especially given the context of the day, that’s a small complaint. Indeed, the WCMS’s remaining series’ offerings — a Schubert survey, a solo cello recital, and a concert of violin duets — promise to be both timely and necessary. And, if you miss the live event, all will be available on-demand on the WCMS’s website in the week following.