Vim and Fire - Music at Menlo • by Gary R. Lemco

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Vim and Fire - Music at Menlo • by Gary R. Lemco

Post by Lance » Sun Jul 21, 2013 8:56 pm

Vim and Fire: Music@Menlo Opens the Summer Season
By Gary Lemco

WITH THE DYING TONES, pianissimo, of Bartók’s spectacular Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, an aroused full house erupted into applause at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton as the July 19, 2013 program concluded, an evening that also included works by J.S. Bach, Schubert, and Schumann. Under the guiding rubric “Through Bach,” this concert featured works for piano, four hands, either at one or two keyboards, with a lively assortment of performers assigned to an array of colorful selections. Each of the summer series concert programs, running July 19-August 10, means to celebrate Bach’s influence on “the entire trajectory of musical history.” As scholar Robert L. Marshall states, “Bach was able to survey and bring together the principal styles, forms, and national traditions that had developed during preceding generations and, by virtue of his synthesis, enrich them all.”

The program opened with Bach’s Concerto for Two Pianos in C Major, BWV 1061 (1734), with Derek Han and Gloria Chien as primo and secondo, respectively, and a contingent of strings players: Arnaud Susssmann, Soovin Kim, Sean Lee, and Kristen Lee, violins; Sunmi Chang and Mark Holloway, violas; Luarence Lesser and David Finckel, cellos; and Scott Pingel, bass. The two keyboards had the pianists’ backs to the audience, old-style; we had to remind ourselves that it was Liszt who decided a profile was worth a thousand words. A hearty dialogue ensued from the outset, the two pianists in constant concertante flurry while the string complement supported and enriched the textures. Spirited, singing lines and seamless transitions between the two leading voices marked this exemplary, crystalline rendition. The Adagio (or rather, Largo) had Han and Chien intimately conversing sans accompaniment. The Vivace: Fuga finale proffered a sparkling combination of harmony and invention, the polyphonic lines as transparent as they were ductile.

Derek Han returned for the second offering, here accompanied at one keyboard by Hyeyeon Park, with Ms. Park at the primo part for Schubert’s 1828 Rondo in A Major, Op. 107, D. 951. This so-called “Grand Rondeau” derives from Schubert’s last months of life, yet the emotional cast of the work remains sunny, opening with an Allegretto quasi Andantino whose theme clearly resembles aspects of his lovely, earlier (1819) Sonata in A Major, Op. 120, D. 664. The emotional breadth of the piece belies its epithet “rondo,” in that Schubert interrupts the usual palindrome structure of ABA-C-ABA with any number of asides or episodes, some invoking the poise of a rustic chorale. Each of Schubert’s melodies dovetails another, so the flow of invention appears grounded in some vast stream of beauty. The refrain itself renews and transforms in its various appearances, whether laendler, march, waltz, or German dance; and so what would otherwise remain a salon piece of some Beidermeier pragmatism suddenly transforms the entire four-hand genre into a canvas of supreme majesty.

The first half of the concert ended with a unique assortment of instruments arranged by Robert Schumann: his Andante and Variations for Two Pianos, Two Cellos, and Horn, Op. 46 (1843). We had Derek Han and Gloria Chien at the keyboards; with Laurence Lesser and David Finckel, cellos; and Kevin Rivard, horn. Mr. Rivard plays a fine horn, by the way, his tone and vocal articulation reminiscent of the late John Barrows. Schumann work opens with a slow introduction, the mordantly chromatic theme — to be the subject of 12 variations — drooping like the late, haunted Concert Piece for Piano and Orchestra in D Minor. The sixth variation of Op. 46 exploits Schumann’s tendency to self-promotion, quoting from his own Frauenliebe und Leben song cycle, Op. 42, obviously a sighing paean to wife Clara. Prior to the song citation, Schumann creates an effective funereal dirge much like that in his famous Piano Quintet. While the cellos sang artfully in variation 5, the horn sounded a hunting call in variation 9 that surely impressed Brahms for his own excursion into this sound-world in his Horn Trio. Darkly intimate and piquantly colorful, the Schumann dictated a thoughtful melancholy upon us as we left for intermission, anticipating the singular monument that would constitute the finale, Bartók’s monumental Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion (1937).

One of the percussionists for this performance, Chistopher Froh, calls the Bartók “one of the two pillars of the percussion repertory,” the other – according to Froh – George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos), which just happens to pay homage to Bartók. Along with Froh, percussionist Ian Rosenbaum joined pianists Wu Han and Gilbert Kalish – the latter a devoted George Crumb acolyte – for the Bartók Sonata, a product of his relationship with philanthropist musician Paul Sacher. From the forceful opening — almost reminiscent of those explosive, whirling colors from Stravinsky’s Petrushka — we in the audience knew we had a blistering realization of this many-layered score before us.

Given the polyphonic aesthetic of sound, mass, color and rhythm, it remains hard to believe the first movement Assai lento – Allegro molto is in C Major. The piece presents rather a sound “phenomenon” akin to the shocks that mark Le Sacre du Printemps, a synthesis of Debussy, Stravinsky, the exotic gamelan orchestra, and Bartok’s endemic Hungarian, modal nationalism. The second movement, Lento ma non troppo, ostensibly in F Major, opts for Bartók’s “night music” strategy, the ternary song-form. The last movement, parallel to the sonata-form first movement, resumes in C Major. But the iconoclastic presentation of traditional forms comes with such urgency and imaginative bravura that we still sit aghast at the sheer audacity that makes such demands upon performer and listener. When the last notes subsided, the rapt audience itself exploded in appreciation, not only for the uncanny stamina and co-ordination among the principals, but for the re-awakening of their collective consciousness from a piece of music that refuses to cater to our musical complacency.
Interested patrons of Music@Menlo may write to their website or call: 650-331-0202 to secure tickets for the remainder of the Festival and Institute. ♫

Dr. Gary R. Lemco is a regular reviewer for Classical
Music Guide
. He resides in California.

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