Something magnificent occurred on August 21. No, I’m not talking about the celestial glory of the solar eclipse. I’m talking about something far more intimate and closer to home: the final performance of this season’s summer R&R Family Concert Series on Roosevelt Island. The relaxing evening of classical music featured the performances of four extraordinary talents: Daniel Weiser (piano), Iris Jortner (cello), Ralph Allen (violin), and Marcia Cassidy (viola). Monday’s performance was the last of four concerts in the summer series and concludes the program’s tenth season on the Island.
Named after New York music lovers Rosemarie and Robin Russell, the R&R concert series aims to bring “world-class concerts and music education” to New Yorkers without any cost barriers. Performances take place at the Good Shepherd Center on Main Street. One can almost hear this historic landmark calling lovers of classical music to come enjoy the sounds of stringed instruments echoing off its old stone walls. You’ll find no electronic amplification here. The melodies and harmonies reach the ear via pure, unadulterated, natural acoustics that, I can tell you as a musician myself, are a dream come true. The reverb, volume, and timbre of every note played is perfectly balanced. And it’s all free (though I heartily encourage you to drop a little cash into the donation box on your way out).
Interestingly, the R&R concert series didn’t start out as a concert series. It began as a single memorial of music to pianist Robin Russell, a longtime patron of the arts on Roosevelt Island and founder of the Island Arts Music School. Afterward, according to R&R Concert board member and concert cellist Iris Jortner, “We realized that there was a wonderful audience on Roosevelt Island, a wonderful community, and a wonderful chapel. It’s a great opportunity for both audiences and performers to come together.” Each year, since 2007, the concerts have continued.
Iris Jortner was a teacher at the Island Arts Music School and serves on the R&R Concerts board
During Monday’s concert, the quartet played selections from one of my favorites – Johannes Brahms. The four-movement piece, Piano Quartet in G Minor, OP. 25, was exquisitely executed. The trademark back-and-forth play between strings and piano felt natural, unhurried, and effortless. I most appreciated Weiser’s ability (and willingness) to keep his piano’s volume at bay, thus enabling the strings to shine undiminished. The pure serenity and warmth of Brahms came through marvelously. Perhaps even more enjoyable, however, were selections from Gustav Mahler and Joaquin Turina.
From Mahler, attendees were treated to Piano Quartet in A Minor which, interestingly, has only one movement: Nicht zu schnell (not too fast). Much to my delight, the quartet delivered this selection to perfection. It was the first piece of the evening to be played and, like an appetizer before a fine meal, it whet everyone’s hunger for more. (For all of you movie buffs out there, this particular piece can be found on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s 2010 thriller, Shutter Island.)
From Turina, the performers chose Piano Quartet in A Minor, OP. 67, which was played flawlessly. This selection, consisting of three movements, seemed especially difficult due to its built-in tempo alterations and Spanish Folk/Gypsy flair that, if not done with precision, would have caused the piece to fall flat. Fortunately, the musicians moved well with each other, staying tightly in step during their journey through each movement.
I wasn’t the only one wanting an encore during the night’s standing ovation. “This series of concerts is one of the best things on the Island,” said resident Sandra Levine.
Concertgoers Michael Duncan and Melody Zimmer said they had attended the concert series for the past three seasons. “It’s really a pleasure to be able to walk 200 feet from your house and enjoy musicianship of this quality,” said Duncan. “And you can’t beat the price!” Zimmer agreed, “The musicianship is startlingly high for a free concert series. And I love this space. Attending the concert here just heightens the experience.”
Marc Diamond, chair of the R&R Concerts board of directors, hopes the concerts will continue to enhance the Island’s cultural life for many years to come. According to Diamond, the group is dedicated to keeping the events free, trusting that the performances offered will motivate individual and corporate donors to help the organization not to just stay afloat, but expand programming to include more full orchestras (and possibly even opera singers).
If you missed the summer series, don’t fret. Several other concerts are planned throughout the coming year, including perhaps a piano concerto featuring the amazing conductor, Benjamin Hochman, as well as another summer series in 2018. For more information visit www.rrconcerts.org.