Cellist Amy Leung and pianist Naoko Takao gave a recital this 18 August, but they also gave us an object lesson in the challenges of presenting music in the wrong setting, here a venue which robs the music of precisely the features that make it worthy of performance– once again, the Millennium Stage distracts from and undermines the artistry it seeks to present. The repertoire demonstrated what is best about chamber music: the intimacy of collaboration between performers, the proximity (literal and emotional) to the audience. Ms. Leung and Ms. Takao strove hard to achieve these goals and sometime succeeded, despite a venue with all the intimacy and elegance of an aircraft hangar.
Ms. Leung, currently hailing from Utah is a former DCer, having been a Guarneri Fellow at the University of Maryland, and in residence at GWU with the (sadly) now dissolved Coolidge Quartet. Takao is similarly a UMD-CP alum, and teaches at the Levine School, in addition to her geographically diverse career as a soloist and collaborative artist. They have several performances in town this week (here and here), and one hopes to see and hear more of them locally and soon. Monday’s program featured Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and ‘cello, Op. 102, No. 1, Elegy for cello and piano of Maryland composer Masatoshi Mitsumoto, and Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Cello and Piano #2, Op. 58.
It is a cliché to speak of Beethoven’s sonatas as duets, dances between equal partners, but sometimes clichés exist for a reason; here in the Op. 102, the rhetoric of a duet is taken en passé on the way to the dialogic; the ground v. figure duality often disappears altogether in this work, as the performers enact a conversation of exemplary Beethovenian motivic development. As with all great performances, this dialogue is not merely enacted or inhabited— Ms. Leung and Ms. Takao created it anew, as if for the first time. The gameplay of tempi and of caesurae kept the listener in suspense, even when the formal and generic obligations are largely predictable. This is of course a wonder of Beethoven, the infinitesimal but ineludible tension not so much between what is and what must be, but between what just was and what is about to be. It was a joy to hear and see to collaborators exploring together as partners, discovering this nano-realm of time and reciprocity without loosing site of the large-scale shaping of the work.
After such a strong opening work, the Elegy was a great disappointment. A rhapsodic work recalling the harmonic language of Fauré, it was only a shallow reproduction of the elegance of the master. There is none of the delicate weaving together of textures which pull Fauré’s music forward; here the piano fills time rather then unfolds it for the listener. Occasional harmonic inventions have no impact on the four-square phrase and formal structure, and as such are merely decorative, an effort at variety that serves rather to highlight sameness. The players tried to make the work “work,” as it were, and perhaps a little too hard, placing too much expressive umph on a rather frail skeleton. Programmatically, one has the sense here of an opportunity missed, a chance to present a work which expanded on the temporal arguments of the Beethoven, or explored the textural and coloristic possibilities of the ensemble as a presage of the following Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn, it must be said, is far from a favorite of mine, but the Op. 58 Sonata No. 2 showed the players off to best effect; they met the work where it was at, and took it farther than I thought one could. This is not profound musical material, but the musicians’ carefully considered choices of color and touch surpassed expectations; in particular Ms. Leung’s sense of timbre and superb bow work brought to the piece an energy and multidimensionality in the work. Even they couldn’t salvage the adagio, however, little more than a composing out of a Heinichen thoroughbass exercise. Luckily, their delightful playfulness returned in the final movement (Molto Allegro e vivace) and brought, through precision and deftness, life to music which is, by and large, rather more schematic rather than nuanced, and so all too easy to play ‘by the numbers.’
The only real issue I have here is the Millennium Stage itself— the notion of a small concert happening every day is a noble and lofty goal, and the selection of performers is (often) excellent. Unfortunately the space itself turns this quest quixotic. Instead of constructing, literally and metaphorically, a space for recitals and smaller events to succeed in, the Kennedy Center has relied on sloppy repurposing of lobby space and amateurish amplification to present simulacra of chamber music. The microphones here caught every transient noise and page turn while robbing the instruments of much of their color, and slap-dash leveling flattened out the dynamic ranges the performers developed. The success of these musicians was despite the substantial hurdles this venue afforded them, and they should be praised all the more for it. But the fundamental truth here is that they deserved better from the Kennedy Center. DC deserves better.
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