The Town of Olive is a rural community about 15 miles from Woodstock NY, the home to the long-running Maverick Chamber Series. The Olive Free Library, built largely with local donations, is a splendid example of a small-town library which provides copious space, large and varied collection, and numerous programs for area residents including not only the usual book clubs and children’s activities but also even a ukulele club.
A couple of decades ago, two public-spirited music lovers, one a piano technician, started a small chamber music series there. After they moved away, leaving as their legacy a beautifully restored Steinway grand, another local musician decided to take up the slack: renowned composer George Tsontakis, who has lived in Olive for many years. When Tsontakis isn’t filling commissions, he teaches across the Hudson River at Bard College. Several years before the pandemic, he started a short series of concerts he calls Piano Plus, basically piano recitals with contributions from one or more other musicians.
On March 11th Piano Plus emerged from its pandemic hiatus with a concert by two of Tsontakis’s Bard colleagues. Violinist Yi-We Jiang was a long-time member of the Shanghai Quartet. Pianist Frank Corliss, director of the Bard College Conservatory of Music, has specialized as a teacher of collaborative piano–a much more appropriate term than “accompanist.” He has Boston roots, having been a staff pianist for the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
Saturday’s recital at the Olive Free Library had some unusual aspects. It was definitely not “piano plus,” as the entire program involved both performers. Also, most of the time one expects a violin recital to involve a virtuoso soloist. But here, although both players are technically accomplished, both have had careers centering on collaboration. So we did not expect a powerhouse violin soloist overpowering a deferential pianist but rather a true collaboration. Also unusual, among the ten numbers, we heard only one multi-movement sonata. The resulting musical tapas dinner provided more than a few desserts.
In a Largo by Francesco Maria Veracini, presumably a movement from a sonata. the playing was well-balanced and refreshingly unromanticized, not exactly an exemplar of Baroque performance practice. Two works of Brahms followed: the “F.A.E.” Scherzo, Brahms’s contribution to a collaborative sonata written as a tribute to Joachim, and the Violin Sonata No. 2, in A, Op. 100. We are used to larger-scale, more powerful Brahms these days, but these modest, thoughtful collaborations never disappointed. Sure, it’s fun to hear big personalities charging their way through this music (Joachim was certainly one of those, as his recordings demonstrate), but the scale and coordination of Saturday’s traversal provided great pleasures: technical security and also gratifying tonal beauty and variety.
Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta was new to me. Kreisler, a composer of tasteful, attractive music, certainly knew how to write for the violin. This piece, though, had so many familiar gestures and arbitrary modulations that it seemed like a group of Kreisler encores run through a blender, even in the tasty performance.
Sarasate’s delicious Spanish Dances, Op. 26, No. 1 caries no descriptive title, just “Vivo.” Again the performance was flavorful and entertaining. Encore transcriptions of music by Mendelssohn (Achron), Debussy (Roelens), Chopin (Auer), Tchaikovsky (Auer again), and Carl Engel (Zimbalist) followed. I can do without Debussy’s and Chopin’s piano music arranged for the violin, but these went by quite sensitively. In the closer, though, the performers seemed seriously miscast. Ravel wrote his“Tzigane” for two fire-breathing virtuosos, and in the duo’s modest take, it fell flat. After all these encores, the duo gave us one more encore, a nice tidbit by Castelnuovo-Tedesco called “The Little Mermaid.”
Listeners in search of thrills and chills might have been disappointed in this concert, but the capacity crowd greeted each piece with lusty cheers, even the individual movements of the Brahms Sonata. It’s always pleasing to encounter such a breach of stiff contemporary concert etiquette, which 19th-century concert life did not embrace. These days it means we have novice concertgoers in the audience, thank goodness.
Piano Plus continues on April 22nd, when the Pelia String Quartet joins pianist Hiroko Sakurazawa, a local favorite, in the Schumann Piano Quintet.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.