NEC faculty member Kim Kashkashian is proof that the words “violist” and “famous” are not contradictory, and any recital of hers is an event not to be missed. On Sunday night in Jordan Hall she impressed with not only technical and artistic mastery, but with collaborative and communicative skills — just what one would expect from a luminary of the viola world. She was joined by equally skilled colleagues Marina Piccinini, flute, and Sivan Magen, harp, and together the three of them achieved the difficult task of creating a cohesive program from an ensemble for which the only well-known composition is Debussy’s Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe (the program closer).
Often chamber music with an all-star cast runs awry, the artists unable to overcome their individual personas to achieve the necessary blend. Not so with Kashkashian and friends, who consistently demonstrated mutual dedication and attention while at the same time maintaining their individual charms. I was unsure what to expect from the opening piece, an instrumentally far-flung adaptation of one of Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concert, thinking it odd for the players to introduce themselves with a composition originally written for none of their instruments. However, the imitative nature of the writing highlighted their ability to converse, banter, and combine sounds, and the piece as a whole came off with a nice balance of zippy virtuosity and naturalness. The swift tempo of the opening movement sometimes threatened to overwhelm the ear, as cascades of notes in the harp met with crisp, metrically inexact ornamentation in the melodic lines. On the other hand, the effect was never staid or boring — each instrument used the playful, leaping and falling opening figure of the theme to pop out of the texture with mischievous, unsettled flair. Kashkashian and Piccinini allowed their sound to flower operatically in the slow second movement (“La Cupis” — each movement named for a friend or acquaintance of note): a warm and sensitive love duet, perhaps as tribute to Rameau’s niche as opera composer. The level of connection between the two sustaining instruments in regards to color and phrasing was masterful, including a few elegantly precise subito piano moments.
Kashkashian returned alone for selections from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, announcing that she was going to “play and tell stories” by way of explaining the six miniatures’ quirky titles. Her short interjections, from honoree Tamás Blum’s melancholy promise “I will wait for you on the other side,” to an assurance that there was “absolutely no hanky-panky involved” in Kurtág’s relationship with another dedicatee, to the interpretation of the one called “Flapping-Slapping” as “an unresolvable dispute” were managed gracefully without breaking the spell of performance and provided a welcome chance to digest the incredibly creative and pithy substance of Kurtág’s work. The pieces themselves were a perfect showcase for both Kashkashian’s impeccable technique and her intelligence in opening up for display these tiny windows into another world. From the gypsy-tinged romanticism of “Hungarian song of the green forest” to the superhuman nth-position microtonal double stops of “Chromatic dispute,” she jumped from haunting to rambunctious to crazy to celebratory with élan.
It was the Kurtág that made me begin to see a pattern in the program: the theme of storytelling, or at least of pieces that offered glimpses into other places and other lives. Sofia Gubaidulina’s trio Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten (The Garden of Joy and Sorrow) is inspired by two poets, the Russian Iv Oganov and the German Francisco Tanzer, and the performance was bookended by a reading in German of one of the latter’s poems by an uncredited girl from the corner of the stage, which in contrast to Kashkashian’s previous narration came off as somewhat affected (and made more awkward by the fact that she had to remain perched on the edge of her chair during the entire performance).
The trio itself was lovely, largely composed of overlapping ostinato figures which ebbed and flowed with an ease befitting the cycles of nature they illustrated. Magen set the tone effectively with an undulating figure that involved bending pitches with a metal implement; later he also used a long strip of paper to create more unique sounds that contributed to the “vivid Eastern color” with which Gubaidulina mirrored Oganov. One of Kashkashian’s roles was an ethereal pattern of natural harmonics, and though Piccinini was the one most often carrying a melody, she blended seamlessly into the landscape of shifting colors. Contrasted with this landscape were several cadenzas for each instrument that emerged in swathes of aggression and passion (Magen wielding his metal thing like a mad scientist) before subsiding into the previous blend of cyclical mantras.
Magen and Piccinini both had solo turns in the second half of the program, with (I was pleased to discover) pieces meant to dispel the stereotypical characters of their respective instruments. Magen performed Japanese-French composer Yoshihisa Taira’s Sublimation, which perhaps doesn’t have a story beyond the physical process it describes but definitely has a statement to make. Magen energetically demonstrated further extended techniques with thumps, knocks, squeaks, rattles, and slaps which sounded at times eerily like UFO communiqués, alternating effortlessly with the classic beauty of glissandi and harmonics. He also displayed a great talent for rendering two voices and two characters simultaneously in different registers of the instruments.
Piccinini’s selection was Michael Colgrass’s Wild Riot of the Shaman’s Dreams, a profile of a legendary crazed Inuit shaman, written and dedicated to Piccinini. According to Colgrass they worked together to achieve “the right balance of madness and poignancy that we both felt expressed the lost soul of Kakumee,” and the result was dramatic, suspenseful, and moving. The piece started out guttural and blustery and moved through a tapestry of effects and characters, from stark long notes that evoked the icy, windswept tundra to piercing trills and runs channeling a human psyche stretched to the breaking point. Piccinini augmented the deeply evocative music with body language and facial expressions, building tension as she careened between ever more wild juxtapositions, interrupting snatches of folk songlike melody with bursts of insanity. Alternately crouching over, cradling, and flinging her sounds right and left, she was a truly entertaining and potent storyteller.
The Debussy trio concluded the program, and after becoming acquainted with each performer over the course of the evening it was a pleasure to hear them come together again in Debussy’s intricate and lush chamber gem. It’s a very meandering type of piece, but the three performers maintained as tight an ensemble and as clear a sense of phrasing in the dreamy, wispy passages as they did in sections of rhythmic drive. In fact, the head-in-the-clouds sonorities they achieved belied the intense concentration and group focus that, underneath, never flagged. The Interlude brought many instances of lovely unisons, long and perfectly balanced pentatonic phrases and notey runs during that gave Magen the chance finally to be angelic. Kashkashian, on the other hand, did not shy away from scratchiness in the Finale, adding another texture to the detailed mix — overall, a performance of beauty and guts.
More scampering, imitative Rameau was offered as an encore: merry, if not quite as successful an adaptation as the earlier selection. Great musicians and great music, both familiar and new — a thorough treat.