in: Reviews

May 20, 2013

Shalin Liu Tunes Up for Summer Festival

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The pre-season at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center continued with a May 19th program featuring BSO cellist Jonathan Miller, pianist Marc Ryser and Miller’s BSO colleague Lucia Lin, violin, under the sponsorship of Miller’s Boston Artists Ensemble. The program was admirably varied, each half anchored by a familiar standard and leavened with less familiar works.

The opening work fell definitely into the latter category. Henry Cowell’s cello sonata was written in 1915 at age 18, and was produced just after he started his formal compositional training with Charles Seeger, after a period of musical self-education. It is written in a lushly late-Romantic idiom tinged in various places with modal inflections and nods to the Irish jiggery of which he remained fond his entire career, returning to it in middle age after he abandoned his avant-garde experimentation. Oh yes, and the finale does sport some tone clusters; we don’t know if this was his first use of them, but he employs them in the introduction (and its later return) to grab the audience’s attention, thereafter expanding them to blend into the prevailing tonal harmony. The work is an interesting curiosity; it presents some expansive and attractive tunes, especially in the surprisingly brief slow movement, but overall Cowell seemed unsure what to do with his raw materials. Thus the entirety of the piece, while undeniably pleasant, seems disjointed and without trajectory. Miller was notably sweet-toned in the lyrical passages, and Ryser’s playing was impeccably crafted yet deferential. Miller’s tone is not the most forward of the cellists claiming one’s attention these days, and especially in the upper registers there were times he nearly disappeared against the piano. Luckily, the acoustic of the hall, though on the dry side, projects sufficiently to keep that from happening.

There followed Beethoven’s Twelve Variations on The Theme “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This piece has the deceptive opus number 66, which would put it alongside the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, but in fact it was written in the mid- to late-1790s and therefore is solidly within Beethoven’s early period. In his program note, Miller made the case that Beethoven used these variations to depict the narrative and emotional progress of Papageno—whose aria this is—much as in his later theatrical overtures (to say nothing of all those Leonores) he encapsulated the stories of the plays they introduced. This may be so, but the style and presentation of these variations differs little from the many variation sets, mostly for piano solo, that Beethoven wrote around this time. The expressive content, often measured in departures from the contours of the original melody, appearing for example in the variations on “Rule Brittania,” is far more advanced over these Mozart variations. While there are some notable cases of the two instruments in dialogue, particularly in variation 3, much of the heavy lifting in this piece is done by the piano (the score actually calls the work variations for piano with cello obbligato), which Ryser handled with panache and perfect period grace. This is not to denigrate Miller, who also kept his touch light, and who with Ryser was very affecting in the slow, lyrical variation.

The first half ended with Miller alone performing the C major suite of Bach (i.e., No. 3, BWV 1009). This is the second most often performed of the six suites and, as Miller explained, one of the hardest ones to interpret, on account of conflicting editions with varied approaches to bowing and articulation. Not being an expert in these matters, we’re unqualified to comment on Miller’s choices. What did strike us, though, was an attention to detail that sometimes got in the way of the bigger picture, especially in the Prelude, where there was no bouncing beat to keep up the propulsion, as there was in most of the dance movements. The “drone” passages lacked deep resonance (possibly an artifact of the hall). We most enjoyed Miller’s reading of the Allmande, the Bourrée, and especially the rhapsodically effective Sarabande. Passages in the Courante and Gigue sometimes seemed rushed as he built to a climax, and some phrase endings could have been better sustained. The Gigue contained the most bravura passages, which Miller delivered with crowd-pleasing gusto.

What was for us the highlight of the program came right after intermission, with Lin and Miller in Bohuslav Martinů’s Duo for Violin and Cello, from 1927. In two movements, it’s like a proper sonata that’s missing its first movement. The opening Preludium wastes no time before plunging into a fierce and soulful intensity, which Lin and Miller conveyed perfectly with, well, what we said. The driving motif is a rocking minor third, which builds to a tense climax and falls back; the closing passages are rich in expressive trilling in both instruments. The second movement, a rondo, offers by radical contrast a witty, sprightly main theme with many 18th-century flourishes combined with 20th-century chromatic runs. Midway through comes a surprise cadenza for the cello, which turns much darker in hue, so that when the violin returns in similar vein, the new mood colors the remainder of the work, including the return of the principal theme. We didn’t know this piece before, but thanks to Lin and Miller’s committed, powerful performance, we will seek it out again.

The program’s closer brought Ryser back in the Brahms Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, op. 99. Although, like much of Brahms’s late works, it is remarkably compact in form, it is jam-packed with passion, subtle colorations, and world-weariness. The playing in the first movement was appropriately robust from both performers. The slow movement, full of wistful reflection, was the perfect accompaniment to a gray Sunday afternoon as disclosed through the hall’s glass wall onto Rockport harbor. Miller was conspicuously effective in the fierce pizzicato passages of this movement, as were both players in the stormy third movement, one of Brahms’s self-described “little scherzos,” on a level with the Piano Quintet and the Second Piano Concerto. In the finale, the principal theme seemed at first underplayed, though this turned out to be a clever feint, the better to set off the passionate second theme. On the whole, this was a very strong performance, though as in the Cowell we worried at times that Miller’s sound wasn’t quite big enough, and we sometimes thought that rapid passages in upper registers shortchanged their upper notes by a few cents from dead center.

The Shalin Liu is not a regular venue for BAE concerts, and the hall was noticeably less full for this program than for events in the Rockport Music’s Summer Chamber Music Festival, the 32nd iteration of which begins on June 7th. However, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t venture up that way on a nice weekend, when opportunities like this concert present themselves.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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