IN: Reviews

Surprising Chamber Music Venue

by

The little town of Olive, in upstate New York, about 20 minutes’ drive from my home in Woodstock, barely exists. It has a few businesses, including a good restaurant and a monumentally decrepit bar. It is also home to the Olive Free Library, an improbably splendid institution which has an impressive collection, ongoing art exhibits, and even a ukulele club. A large room, which has the art on its walls, also has a well-maintained Steinway grand piano, legacy of former local resident Israel Schlosser, a piano tuner.Schlosser and his late wife Rackelle curated a lovely concert series called the Trail Mix Concerts. After they moved away, another local resident decided to continue the classical music tradition at the Library. George Tsontakis, one of our most successful composers, has become an impresario, presenting a series of three Piano Plus concerts every Spring. Each concert features a solo pianist and someone else.

Last Saturday, April 13th, the pianist was Todd Crow. Before his retirement from Vassar College, Crow often played faculty recitals at the school. I did my best to attend every one of them. Now I have no reliable regular opportunities to hear Crow, but he was fortunately recruited to play at Piano Plus and attracted a capacity audience of nearly a hundred people.  

The recital opened with an unusual item, the variations movement from Brahms’s String Sextet No. 1 arranged by the composer. Crow was immediately in his element, characterizing each variation vividly and playing with his customary smooth and flawless technique. He was then joined by his “plus,” violist Marka Gustavsson, who was a long-time member of the legendary Colorado Quartet until it disbanded a decade ago.
 
Brahms’s Viola Sonata No. 1, Op. 120, No. 1, is another arrangement by the composer, originally for clarinet.  The opening of the first movement was a little bit unbalanced, the piano dominating more than it should. But the players rapidly adjusted to the room and from then on presented a suitably mellow reading of this sublime music. I know that they are not a regularly working duo, but they have played together before and for this performance they sounded as well-coordinated as if they were working together every week.

Crow continued to demonstrate his qualities after intermission. Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, is one of his most adventurous pieces, at once an extension of the polonaise form and a dreamy meditation on it. The technical challenges of the music are probably not as difficult as keeping continuity, but Crow was riveting. Liszt’s lyrical :Sonetto 104 del Petrarca,” despite a few Lisztian flourishes, is sweet, lyrical music, which Crow brought out vividly, minimizing any
distractions from the showy passages.

Then we arrived at Debussy, where added to the other demands of the previous works is the need for pianistic color. Fortunately, the piano was up to the challenge, and so was Crow. Debussy once remarked that his piano music should be played as if the instrument did not have hammers, and Crow created that illusion with his very sensitive touch. Three Preludes from Debussy’s Book 1 were superbly played, with special notice to the color of “La Cathedrale engloutie,” enlivened with a great variety of sound. “L’Isle joyeuse” needs all that along with an even greater demand for virtuosity, and again Crow was very satisfying. As an encore, he gave us Joseph Suk’s beautiful “Love Song,” a youthful example of that composer’s convincing romanticism. I’d love to hear him–or anyone–play Suk’s exquisite “About Mother.”

Todd Crow has recorded about half a dozen CDs, two of them from BBC broadcasts, with repertoire ranging from Schubert to Toch’s Piano Concerto. He is still in his prime, a drastically underutilized resource. Perhaps some concert series in need of a great pianist will recruit him. I’ve been listening to concert pianists for about 65 years and reviewing for most of that time, and I have no hesitation in calling Todd Crow a great pianist.

Due to a misunderstanding on my part I didn’t submit a timely  review of the first concert in this year’s series, on March 23rd, but better late than never with something this worthwhile. Yalin Chi is a Hudson Valley pianist who plays with the West Point band and at various venues around the area. A YouTube pandemic concert on behalf of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, an orchestra currently in hibernation, demonstrated that she can conquer even a challenge like the Prokofiev Toccata, and she has given a couple of splendid performances in the Saugerties Pro Musica series. Her “plus” for this concert was a second pianist, Steven Beck, with whom she has played duos for a long time. Their comfort with each other was shown in the perfection of ensemble in Satie’s “Trois morceaux en forme de poire” and Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” both played with appropriate French lyricism. Piano duets are among the most difficult ensembles, since the slightest imperfections are audible, but here there were none. Chi’s solos were all Rachmaninoff: two song transcriptions one of the Moments Musicaux, four Etudes-Tableaux and the bone-crunching Sonata No. 2. I think this music is difficult to bring off convincingly, but Chi crushed it, with impressive dexterity and power. Another area pianist well worth hearing.

Piano Plus continues on May 4th with a headline “Plus,” the Hesper
String Quartet, and pianist Neilson Chen.

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.

Comments Off on Surprising Chamber Music Venue