A delightful ‘Beguiling Brahms’ at the National Chamber Ensemble

A Valentine's-themed concert of swelling, grand works that evoke the (often tumultuous) emotions of love.

The National Chamber Ensemble gave the audience an early Valentine Day’s treat with their Beguiling Brahms and Schumann concert. Artistic Director and Violinist Leonid Sushansky was joined by Pianist Carlos César Rodríguez for this charming performance, which opened with Antonín Dvořák’s “Sonatina in G Major, Op. 100.”

Dvořák’s “Sonatina” was a fantastic warmup for the night’s “main courses” of Brahms and Schumann. As Sushansky explains, the work was penned in the United States and embodies a sort of movement through longing — whether for another person or another place, we can only guess. The upbeat “Molto vivace” movement was a particular highlight and showcased how well Sushansky and Rodríguez complement each other, especially during more complex pieces.

They then took on “Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105,” which is another work that highlights desire. This was especially enjoyable in that each movement progressed through what seemed to be different emotional states. Rodríguez mentioned that the final movement, “Lebhaft,” was related to an image of a carriage that a person had lost control over. In the same way that love can turn into obsession, this final movement of the Schumann piece had that sort of unhinged and frenetic energy, yet the musicians’ skill kept this particular train on the tracks.

As always, the National Chamber Ensemble offers a sample of world-class musicians. Both Sushansky and Rodríguez spent time at the Julliard School, in addition to working with many organizations of note including the New York Philharmonic (Sushansky) and the Washington National Opera (Rodríguez) and spending time in collaboration with or under the tutelage of big names such as Dorothy Delay and Placido Domingo. Every musician who works with the National Chamber Ensemble is an artist at the top of their game.

Opening remarks by Katie Cristol, chair, Arlington County Board. Photo by Angela Anderson.

The concert continued with an introduction to Brahms by Sushansky. He mentioned that Brahms was, very briefly, acquainted with Schumann toward the end of Schumann’s life. After Schumann’s death, Brahms became good friends with Schumann’s widow, Clara, who was herself an accomplished pianist. There seems to have been some tension, or perhaps unrequited love, between Brahms and Clara Schumann. Part of what’s so charming about the National Chamber Ensemble is that you always come away more knowledgeable about the artists than you were before, and this was the perfect anecdote for a Valentine’s Day-themed concert.

After the introduction, Sushansky and Rodríguez transitioned into Brahms’s “Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108.” For me, the second movement, “Adagio,” was the highlight. It swells and stretched and perfectly encapsulates the feeling of yearning that one has when in love. It’s very clear from the selection of music that a lot of thought went into this concert, as is expected from a company of this caliber.

Artistic Director Leo Sushansky (violin) and Carlos Cesar Rodriguez (piano). Photo by Angela Anderson.

Sushansky and Rodríguez weren’t off the hook for an encore! Once the program was complete, they returned to play a piece that was arranged by John Williams for Itzhak Pearlman, “Tango (Por Una Cabeza).” John Williams’s birthday is February 8, so Sushansky decided to celebrate that along with Valentine’s Day — and why not? They rounded off their encore with the Massenet’s “Méditation” from the opera Thaïs. This is another of those swelling, grand works that evoke the (often tumultuous) emotions one has when in love. It was the perfect end to the evening.

For many years, the National Chamber Ensemble has been a beacon of artistry and accessibility. Their work continues to offer hope in a dark time, as well as a place to come and unwind and enjoy musicians who are doing what they do best.

Beguiling Brahms and Schumann played on February 12, 2022, at the Gunston Arts Center Theatre One in Arlington, Virginia. Tickets include streaming access to the recorded concert, available for this concert on February 19. Future concerts in this season include Beloved Baroque Masters (March 19, 2022) and Marvelous Mozart and Mendelssohn (May 21, 2022), both held at Gunston Arts Center Theater One — 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA. Tickets can be purchased online.

COVID Safety: To maximize the safety and comfort of patrons, the National Chamber Ensemble follows CDC recommended guidelines for those attending concerts in person: The NCE will limit in-person attendance to less than 50% of the theater capacity to allow patrons to spread out and feel comfortable. Patrons must be fully vaccinated. Be prepared to show proof. Patrons must wear face masks at all times.


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