Thursday, June 24, 2010

Music review: Atlanta Symphony violinists do right by Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).


By Greg Stepanich

Sergei Prokofiev didn’t write a great deal of chamber music,‭ ‬but his two string quartets,‭ ‬two violin sonatas‭ (‬one originally for flute‭) ‬and piano quintet are marvelous works,‭ ‬and worthy of the repertory status that only the violin sonatas currently appear to have.

The same goes for the‭ ‬Sonata for Two Violins‭ ‬(in C,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬56‭)‬,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1932‭ ‬for a French chamber music series in Paris.‭ ‬It’s a fascinating,‭ ‬absorbing piece,‭ ‬and Tuesday night at Persson Hall it received a standout performance from two members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Jun-Ching Lin (at right) and Jay Christy,‭ ‬who are part of the faculty for this summer’s Stringendo School for Strings at Palm Beach Atlantic University,‭ ‬were right in tune with the Prokofiev,‭ ‬and not just in the numerous bits of tricky intonation at the ends of phrases,‭ ‬in which the two players have to end up on the same pitch.‭ ‬They were right in synch with the spirit of this piece,‭ ‬which covers a good deal of dramatic and emotional ground,‭ ‬and does so in the Russian composer’s most pungent harmonic idiom.

Both men are fine players who demonstrated complete command of their instruments,‭ ‬and worked well together,‭ ‬trading motifs and themes seamlessly.‭ ‬Especially noteworthy were the second movement,‭ ‬which opened with a savage,‭ ‬but precise ferocity in which the little minor-key melodic fragment was hammered out with impressive force.‭

The slow third movement was played with wonderful,‭ ‬sorrowful contrast,‭ ‬lullaby-like and tender,‭ ‬and here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬the primary melodic materials were clearly marked out.‭ ‬It’s worth noting that there are frequent ostinato patterns used as accompaniments in this sonata,‭ ‬and both men took turns shifting from lead to support and back again with expert fluidity.‭

The outer movements were just as striking,‭ ‬the first for its shape-shifting harmonic structure and its treacherous unison high-note summits,‭ ‬and the finale for its crisp,‭ ‬martial vigor.‭ ‬This was a splendid performance of this fine piece,‭ ‬and a pleasure to hear.

Lin and Christy (at right) were joined by violists Renata Guitart and David Pedraza,‭ ‬and cellists Jonah Kim and Hector Ochoa,‭ ‬for the early,‭ ‬ravishing String Sextet No.‭ ‬1‭ (‬in B-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬18‭) ‬of Brahms,‭ ‬composed in‭ ‬1859.‭ ‬This is one of Brahms‭’ ‬finest youthful pieces,‭ ‬and it’s pretty hard to resist‭; ‬this performance won fervent applause,‭ ‬and in general it was well-deserved.

Much of the more extroverted writing in this piece features the two violins and the first cello,‭ ‬with the second used more like a bass.‭ ‬Kim,‭ ‬the first cellist,‭ ‬a Lynn University student who already has an international career,‭ ‬was central to the success of this performance,‭ ‬playing his solo passages with a compelling,‭ ‬intense accuracy.‭ ‬The six players offered a pleasing blend as an ensemble,‭ ‬and clearly communicated with each other to make tempo and dynamic changes smooth.

The performance as a whole also had a feeling of bigness and force,‭ ‬though in the first movement,‭ ‬the little four-note motif that appears throughout the work was a bit too heavy on its first appearance,‭ ‬and there were some questionable intonations across the ensemble in the opening minutes as this particular ship of state righted itself and found its sea legs.

The second movement,‭ ‬a magnificent theme-and-variations that has a strong mid-18th-century flavor,‭ ‬was played with huge,‭ ‬aggressive attacks on the chord changes,‭ ‬which helped evoke the antiquarian sound of which Brahms was so fond.‭ ‬Kim’s solo first variation was right on target,‭ ‬and while the violas had some difficulty with exact tuning in the folk-style major-key variation at the end,‭ ‬it still came across with great effectiveness.

Lin showed his skill as a leader in setting a delightfully appropriate lightness and relaxed tempo for opening of the third-movement scherzo,‭ ‬and of crafting the speedier tempo for the trio.‭ ‬The finale had the same kind of heavy stresses as the first movement,‭ ‬and when it got to the fugue-like development section,‭ ‬with its accented three-note anchors,‭ ‬it was just short of over the top.‭ ‬But it was tempestuous and exciting,‭ ‬and a fine conclusion to an excellent reading of this sextet,‭ ‬and of the concert.

Tuesday’s program opened with the popular Rondo from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.‭ ‬2‭ (‬in B minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬7,‭ ‬La Campanella‭)‬,‭ ‬as arranged for viola by William Primrose.‭ ‬Pedraza was the soloist,‭ ‬accompanied by pianist Liera Antropova.‭ ‬Unfortunately,‭ ‬this piece was not ready for public performance,‭ ‬though it had glimmers of what it could be when Pedraza gets it under his fingers‭; ‬Antropova did yeoman service in keeping the music on track.

The Stringendo series of faculty concerts closes next Tuesday with music of‭ ‬Luigi Boccherini:‭ ‬the String Quintet in C‭ (‬La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid,‭ ‬G.‭ ‬324‭)‬,‭ ‬played by violinists Patrick Clifford and Belen‭ ‬Clifford,‭ ‬violist Renata Guitart,‭ ‬and cellists Claudio Jaffé and Jonah Kim.‭ ‬Kim solos in the Fantaisiestücke,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬73,‭ ‬of Schumann,‭ ‬accompanied by Liera Antropova,‭ ‬followed by the Schubert Piano Trio in B-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬99,‭ ‬with Clifford,‭ ‬Jaffé‭ ‬and Antropova.‭ ‬The concert begins at‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday in Persson Recital Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$15‭; ‬call‭ ‬803-2970‭ ‬or visit www.pba.edu.

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