Music Haven Blows The Roof Off

Lucy Gellman PhotoThe quartet was not even a minute into Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio no. 5 in D Major, Op. 70—also called the “Ghost”—and Phillip Boulanger’s hair had come unstuck from his face, swaying back and forth as he sank deeper and deeper into the melody. Miki Sawada leaned back from the piano every few measures, looking to Boulanger and Yaira Matyakubova for some secret, silent confirmation as her hands flitted across the keys. Every so often they nodded back.

Somewhere else, half a universe away, a ghost was beginning to creak and stir in Beethoven’s second-floor apartment, opening the closet door ever so hesitantly to see if anyone was home. Outside, the streets of Vienna were just waking up, sun skirting over still-cool brick streets and lighting the front windows. As the tempo picked up, so did this ghost, sliding across the floor to the kitchen, dancing on Beethoven’s fabled chopped-up piano, breakdancing in the early morning light by “Largo assai ed espressivo.” No longer were audience members just listening to the group perform from their pews in the Unitarian Society of New Haven; they were living the piece itself.

The teachers and musicians at Music Haven have a real knack for conjuring the truest spirit of a piece, bringing the composer back to life for a moment. Maybe you’ve caught them summoning Beethoven or Britten from the back of their string quartet truck, at their USNH concerts, or their seasonal performance parties.

But nowhere was it clearer than last Saturday evening at the Unitarian Society of New Haven, where the Haven String Quartet was joined by three core members of the organization––resident musician and piano teacher Sawada, oboist Kemp Jernigan, and outgoing director and violist extraordinare Tina Lee Hadari––for two spellbinding hours of trios, quartets, and quintets. Titled “3+4+5,” the concert featured music that held both innovation and precision at its core, and nailed it. 

Members took on not only Beethoven, but Benjamin Britten’s loping, intensely psychological Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, a fiercely pacifist response to World War I, and Johannes Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, a wide, round-sounding aural odyssey that deserves its own article, Wikipedia page, YouTube account, and Grammy nomination. The first, a pensive, sometimes anxious dialogue between Jernigan’s paced, shrill, yet singsong oboe and a call-and-response among strings, opened the group to a kind of musical narrative they’d never quite touched on before (although Bartok’s String Quartet No. 6 gets thematically close), a musical fourth wall falling as Jernigan (pictured below) pointed his oboe squarely at it.

And then the Brahms filled the belly of the Unitarian Society, threatened to blow out the windows, and roll right into the parking lot. This was Brahms as never before: parts slowed and sentimental, parts wild and orgiastic, the whole thing utterly celebratory. The end brought the audience to its feet, some members asking to hear it a second time.

It was also one of the hardest pieces the quartet (plus Hadari) has ever worked on, due to complicated practice schedules and taxing movements. The trick, Colin Benn suggested at the end of the performance, was actively listening, and learning to embody the piece through his peers’ understanding of the music.

Innovation abounded among Music Haven’s young students, too. Sawada, who has helped cultivate the first piano trio at the organization, rolled out her new initiative, NewMusic4Us, which will bring the students elementary-level music from young and emerging composers in the field. Piano student Jose Resto explained to the audience that performing so early in his artistic career has made him “a much better player.” If that wasn’t proof enough, Justin Zlabys took the Society by storm as he played a duet with his father, internationally recognized pianist Andrius Zlabys.

At intermission, Hadari explained that “we decided today that we would like to feature the broader range of artistry that is housed under our organization. And if you enjoy tonight, we hope that you’ll come back for our performance party.”

A grin spread across her face as she described the party, where all of the students will have a chance to play. The audience clapped, cheered, and laughed, a tinkering, bouncing chortle that sounded just like music.

Music Haven’s Winter Performance Party is this Friday, 6 p.m., at Southern Connecticut State University. For more information, visit their calendar ( or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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