in: Reviews

April 6, 2009

Hidden Gem in Plain Sight

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For a relatively small city, Boston boasts multiple strengths. It’s a good place to be should you fall ill, what with its world-renowned hospitals. It’s a great place to be a sports fan, especially these days. [Go Sawx!] And it’s certainly a fantastic place to be a music-lover, bedecked as it is with numerous institutions that attract elite performers from around the globe. With frequent high-profile concerts to attract one’s attention, it’s easy for an overwhelmed music fan to overlook smaller-scale events that oftentimes prove to be more rewarding. Case in point: Sunday’s glittering gem of a recital featuring cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws and pianist Ya-Fei Chuang. Just the fact that the performers’ names include an umlaut, exotic consonant and vowel clusters, and two hyphens is enough to pique one’s curiosity. And the price? Price-less! Thank you, Hammond Residential.

(The Hammond Residential Real Estate Performing Arts Series sponsors a series of concerts throughout the year in Weston, Chestnut Hill, and Boston.)

Held in an intimate space on the second floor of the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion in Boston’s South End on April 5, this recital epitomized the chamber music experience. Floor-to-ceiling windows allowed bright spring sunshine to pour into the room, bathing the performers in a warm glow. The performers, in turn, enveloped the listeners in warm, sonorous tones. Sublime!

The program was pleasingly varied, ranging from the tuneful melodies of Robert Schumann to the angular, modern themes of Leonard Bernstein. Müller-Szeraws and Chuang opened with a lush, flowing, and altogether too-brief bon-bon by Gabriel Fauré, his Romance in A Major, Opus 69. Had to restrain myself from blurting out “Could you please play that again?” upon its completion.

Actually, it was apparent from the first phrase that the audience was in for a rare treat. Both performers were poised, technically near-flawless, expressive, and refined. Müller-Szeraws created a consistently rich tone ranging from diaphonous to full-bodied, which, at times, reverberated perceptibly through the body of this listener. Scintillating! Chuang, actually an accomplished soloist in her own right, was the consummate accompanist, playing with restraint, precision, attentiveness, and immediacy. Fascinating to observe the players’ techniques from an up-close-and-personal vantage point. Chuang caresses the keys with supple, fluid motions; Müller-Szeraws’ creates nuanced shades of sound with subtle bowing. As they cohesively spun out their melodies, they drew the audience into the music until we were as one.

Following the Fauré, Schumann’s 5 Stücke in Volkston, Opus 102, transported listeners to a simpler world, with sweet, uncomplicated melodies and a straightforward emotional landscape full of sepia-toned nostalgia and yearning. We were quickly jolted out of our reverie by the next set of works, Leonard Bernstein’s Three Meditations from “Mass.” These brooding, experimental pieces, written in 1977, plumb the darker, more contemplative depths of the human psyche, ranging from tense to ethereal to “Twilight Zone.” Both players were more than up to the psychological and physical demands of these highly-charged creations. When the final Meditation called for Ya-Fei to repeatedly and rhythmically drum the piano case with her right hand, she handled it with characteristic aplomb.

After a brief intermission in which the acoustically live space was abuzz with excited murmurings, we were treated to one of the meat-and-potatoes works of Romantic music literature: the Sonata in F Major, Opus 99, by Johannes Brahms. This large-scale, quintessentially nineteenth-century piece showcased the performers’ technical prowess and emotional maturity. Shapely phrasing brought this passionate music to life. Exquisitely played, though I’d suggest for future concerts in this venue that the cellist be provided with something other than a venerable piano bench on which to perch. Its ill-timed, discordant creaking was an unwelcome accompaniment.

Wasn’t ready for recital to end; hoping for an encore … .None to be had. (Actually, a repeat of the Fauré would have been most appreciated!) Ah, but I suppose I shouldn’t be greedy. This rarefied performance is one I will savor for quite some time to come.

Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.

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