in: Reviews

August 19, 2014

CCCM at 35: Lights-Out Fireworks

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Thirty-five years ago, Samuel Sanders, the widely admired collaborative pianist who died in 1999, founded the Cape and Islands Chamber Music Festival that today shuns the open seas and is renamed the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. Last Friday, several renowned artists celebrated both his memory and the Festival’s anniversary in a concert that included bonbons and serious works alike. They spoke movingly of their memories of concerts with Sanders in the magnificent Wellfleet Congregational Church, pointing to his energy, toughmindedness beneath a jovial exterior, and love for excellence.

If he had been in attendance, his reactions probably would have ranged from delight to dismay, emotions that often characterize the experience of impresarios surveying their artists, on this occasion violinists Stephanie Chase and Nicholas Kitchen, cellists Yeesun Kim and Laurence Lesser, flutist Carol Wincenc, and pianist Jon Klibonoff, who graciously joined as last-minute substitute.

Kitchen started the fun with Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro in the Style of Pugnani, a work played far more often than others of the 18th-century composer whose claim to fame was that he was a teacher of Viotti, the great violinist and accomplished composer. In 1935, Kreisler fessed up publicly that Pugnani was long out of the picture when he resurrected, more precisely wrote, this work. Since then, it’s played by virtually every violin student and on occasion as an encore by one of the eminences. It was fun to hear local chamber music star Kitchen exhibit his virtuosic side. Knowing his imagination and artistry, one was not surprised to hear it played quite differently from the likes of Shumsky, Elman, Perlman, and Kreisler himself. In the opening prelude, Kitchen varied the dynamics widely, and his rhythmic freedom was charming if not particularly Viennese. Some of the notes were a bit off the mark, except when he launched into pyrotechnics and intonation was firmly in place. I missed a bit of variety and spacing in the rapid variations, but that may have reflected Kitchen’s struggle to be heard above the piano, played at full stick in a more than collaborative way, likely reflecting sparse rehearsal time.

Next came George Crumb’s solo cello sonata (1955), masterfully played by Laurence Lesser. Crumb wrote this in his 20s, and Lesser informed the audience that the young composer was hesitant about publishing it. Good thing he decided to go ahead; it’s a beguiling, forward-looking work. The first movement, Fantasia, is a dialogue between a cello playing a pensive pizzicato and a cello pouring out sad, contemplative, at times keening legato, often double-stopped. The second is a theme with several variations, with pizzicato, muted strings, and further elegiac musings, and the third begins with a slow but stern fanfare and then morphs into a rapid-fire, driving allegro built around triplets and filled with a driving energy that becomes close to chaotic. Lesser explicated the wide variety of moods with clarity, a long line, and subtle rhythmic freedom. There was enormous color in his Amati’s sound, and technical challenges were dispatched with just a hint of struggle, which can make a performance all the more exciting. The performance certainly made me want to get to know this sonata better. I’ve heard Lesser play since his college days. He is both a brainy and passionate artist, and seems to get better and better.

There followed a remarkable flute lesson conducted by Carol Wincenc. She chose four short works to display the range of the instrument when in superb hands. Drama abounded. First came Syrinx, the late (1913) and signature work by Debussy. Wincenc reminded us that the summer days are growing shorter. She ordered all the lights out so that we would not be visually distracted and played in pitch black with virtually no vibrato and no fuss. The final note faded away to nothing. Wonderful! Lights back on brought Valdemosa, a hot Spanish dance by Joseph Horovitz (1926-), composed for clarinet and piano. Joined by Klibonoff, now with the piano lid barely open and in excellent collaborative form, she pirouetted, swayed, and wove a sinuous line that had the audience smiling. Then they turned to Faure and his languorous Morceau de concours (1898). Now there was more vibrato, subtle and tasteful, as romance filled the hall. Finally, she demonstrated how successfully Hora Staccato by Grigoraş Dinicu (1889-1949) can be stolen from virtuoso violinists. It was made famous by Heifetz, whose downbow staccato in this work was superhuman, and Wincenc demonstrated that the tongue can move almost as quickly as the wrist. A scintillating demonstration of virtuosity this was: the accents flashed, and if a few notes were missing from some of the fireworks, it didn’t matter a bit.

Stephanie Chase came on and reminded the audience that Sanders had partnered with many of the preeminent fiddlers of his time. I suspect each performed the Tzigane by Ravel, usually with orchestra even though it was written for violin and a piano adorned with a lutheal, which enabled the sound of a cimbalom to enter into the gypsy festivities. A fearsomely demanding work, it stretches both performer and the violin itself. The unaccompanied opening covers every element of the G string, and then the violinist gains company (in this case the piano) as she flies though the variations, confronting lefthand pizzicato, harmonics, double-stops, and lightning passages of all sorts. The trick is to make it all sound French and airy, a herculean challenge. Chase came close, and she would have been fully successful if her fiddle had adjusted to the sea air and sounded a bit fuller, and if the piano, again at full stick, had been not so thickly prominent. But those are minor reservations; Chase was justly rewarded with an ovation.

Following intermission, Klibonoff and Kitchen joined Yeesun Kim for a return to the festival’s chamber roots. Performing the C-minor trio by Mendelssohn, they worked energetically to remind us that the D-minor is not the only game in town. I have to report that their efforts were largely stymied by imbalance. While the notes were well in place, the piano playing sounded heavy and loud in the bright hall, covering the strings all too often. Kitchen played like a man possessed and Kim tried to overcome the obstacles, but it didn’t work: the cello was obscured much of the time, and the violin also had a hard go, particularly in the lower registers. In the relatively few parts of the trio when an instrument is largely on its own, some beautiful playing emerged from each of the three players, but the lack of ensemble reflected both the hazards of a trio with too little time to rehearse and a piano whose sonic qualities were misjudged. To be sure, my ears were clearly in the minority; the audience loved the performance and called the beaming performers back to the stage, with bravos ringing.

The evening offered an unusual opportunity to hear four remarkable bowed instruments. Kim’s cello, by Pellegrino di Zanetto, was constructed in Brescia after the middle of the 16th century; it must be one of the earliest instruments anywhere currently called on for contemporary performance. Lesser’s cello was created about 75 years later in Cremona by the brothers Amati, more than 100 years before the two Guarneri played by the violinists. The brothers were the progenitors of the greatest makers, and this cello demonstrates fully how some of their instruments, almost 400 years old, are prepared for anything, including the demands of George Crumb, a composer who loves to experiment with as wide a range of sounds as possible. Their successor, Nicolo Amati, mentored Andrea Guarneri, grandfather of Cremona’s Guarneri del Gesu, maker of the late Szymon Goldberg’s concert instrument now in Kitchen’s gifted hands. Created in 1730, about the same time as Kreisler’s favorite violin, also a del Gesu, it demonstrates the silky smoothness and depth of the maker who rivaled Stradivari. Pietro Guarneri, del Gesu’s brother and Chase’s maker, was also a distinguished luthier, but his instruments by and large lack the genius of kid brother; perhaps jealousy is the reason Pietro decided to leave Cremona for Venice.

Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the 16th century on.

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