Learning from the masters
by Sandor Slomovits
Led by the remarkable duo of violinist Gabe Bolkosky and cellist Derek Snyder, Ann Arbor's Phoenix Ensemble is an ever changing cadre of exceptional musicians who have performed in chamber groups and as soloists with orchestras on many of the most prestigious stages in the United States and Europe. Their concerts traverse an enormous range of music from Bach to Mendelssohn, from Villa-Lobos to Piazzolla, and they collaborate with artists as diverse as Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and pianist Bill Bolcom and choreographer-dancer Peter Sparling.
These musicians' teaching credentials are equally impressive. Their only annual tradition is a three-day PhoenixPhest! that draws amateur musicians of all ages and levels of ability to study intensively for three days with the ensemble and their guests, members of the famed Cavani String Quartet. Midway through the Phest! the Phaculty! give a public concert, exemplifying the heights that intimate chamber music can strive for and reach.
Last year's faculty concert began with Bolkosky and Snyder's performance of the whimsical second movement of Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello. Like much of the concert program, this is music best suited for small halls, where the audience is close enough to hear every trill and grace note and even the musicians' breathing, and where every expression, every frayed bow hair, is visible. As the two traded mock-violent pizzicato passages, the distinct sonorities of their instruments seemed almost to disappear and become one. Next, Miriam Bolkosky joined Snyder on Barriere's Sonata in G, and together they created the unique and gorgeous depth of sound that only two exquisitely played cellos can achieve. This was followed by selections from Bartok's Forty-four Duos for Violin. The composer's otherworldly harmonies, combined with the out-of-this-world musicality of Annie Fullard and Mari Soto of the Cavani, made the music sound as if it originated simultaneously from just one violin and from a whole string section.
The evening concluded with Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat, one of the most joyous selections in the entire repertoire. It routinely brings audiences leaping to their feet, even for a lackluster performance. The lengthy ovation that night, though, testified to the impeccable musicianship and the heartfelt reading that the Phoenix Ensemble and their guests brought to this magnificent work.
The PhoenixPhest! 2003 faculty concert is at the Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, May 24. A concert featuring students and faculty, in various combinations and all together, is scheduled for Sunday, May 25, at Emerson School.
[Originally published in May, 2003.]