Thursday, June 9, 2011

Music review: Masterful Bach opens Stringendo series

James Buswell.

By Greg Stepanich

Perhaps it was‭ ‬Johannes Brahms who said it best:

‭“‬Using the technique adapted to a small instrument the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,‭”‬ he wrote to Clara Schumann,‭ ‬describing‭ ‬the‭ ‬celebrated‭ ‬Chaconne of J.S.‭ ‬Bach.‭ “‬If I could picture myself writing,‭ ‬or even conceiving,‭ ‬such a piece,‭ ‬I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.‭”

The great Chaconne that ends the‭ ‬Violin‭ ‬Partita No.‭ ‬2‭ ‬in D minor‭ (‬BWV‭ ‬1004‭)‬ of Bach is one of several solo-instrument milestones established by the composer,‭ ‬including‭ ‬the‭ ‬six suites‭ ‬for solo cello,‭ ‬that have enriched the repertoire immeasurably for nearly‭ ‬300‭ ‬years.‭ ‬The Chaconne and its Partita,‭ ‬along with the sixth Cello Suite‭ ‬(in D,‭ ‬BWV‭ ‬1012‭)‬,‭ ‬were the major works Tuesday night on the first program in the faculty concert series at Palm Beach Atlantic University‭’‬s Stringendo School for Strings summer music camp.

The husband-and-wife team of violinist James Buswell and cellist Carol Ou,‭ ‬both faculty members at Boston‭’‬s New England Conservatory of Music,‭ ‬each gave strong‭ ‬renditions of their respective solo works.‭ ‬The two also performed a relatively new piece,‭ ‬the Double Chaconne for violin and cello of‭ ‬the American composer‭ ‬Richard Toensing,‭ ‬recently retired from the composition faculty at the University of Colorado.

Toensing‭’‬s piece,‭ ‬which came in the middle of the program,‭ ‬proved to be a highly dramatic,‭ ‬tremendously difficult series of variations on an aggressive,‭ ‬explosive theme that ended,‭ ‬like the piece did,‭ ‬with a reminiscence of‭ ‬the famous D-flat appoggiatura‭ ‬before the C that closes the‭ ‬two-cello‭ ‬String Quintet‭ (‬in C,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬956‭)‬ of Schubert.‭ ‬Toensing takes‭ ‬surprisingly‭ ‬little advantage of opportunities to have the two instruments playing together,‭ ‬preferring instead to write mostly a series of dialogue-style passages,‭ ‬several‭ ‬of them featuring fierce tremolandos.

He does,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬employ‭ ‬a wide variety of string colors,‭ ‬from high-floating harmonics to pizzicati plucked over the fingerboard,‭ ‬and chromatic scales that slither between the two instruments,‭ ‬like runners in a snake relay.‭ ‬The overall tone is intense and powerful,‭ ‬and while Toensing‭’‬s two themes aren‭’‬t particularly compelling,‭ ‬he has created a piece that‭’‬s impressive and commanding when it‭’‬s well-played,‭ ‬as it surely was here.

Buswell opened the concert with the‭ ‬Bach‭ ‬Partita,‭ ‬after‭ ‬extensive remarks about the importance of communicating with audiences,‭ ‬and‭ ‬a shout-out to his‭ ‬10-year-old daughter Anna,‭ ‬who was seated in‭ ‬the hall.‭ ‬This is a violinist with a large,‭ ‬commanding sound,‭ ‬and he seems to be able to conjure up that sound with minimal effort,‭ ‬approaching his instrument in a way that‭ ‬seemed almost‭ ‬casual.

He gave a satisfying,‭ ‬accomplished reading of the Partita,‭ ‬one in which technique and interpretation went hand-in-hand comfortably.‭ ‬Buswell chose good tempos and didn‭’‬t linger,‭ ‬and the concluding Chaconne,‭ ‬like the four movements before it,‭ ‬was not especially‭ ‬epic or expansive.

Carol Ou.

Yet the Chaconne‭ ‬is something of an adventure for the audience and the‭ ‬performer,‭ ‬and here it‭ ‬could have used some more drama,‭ ‬some‭ ‬more portentous pacing.‭ ‬The‭ ‬mid-point‭ ‬change to D major,‭ ‬for instance,‭ ‬was modest and quiet,‭ ‬but didn‭’‬t have the kind of setup that makes it magical,‭ ‬that makes the move from‭ ‬stress to repose so fulfilling.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬it was‭ ‬thrilling to hear the piece,‭ ‬and Buswell clearly knows its ins and outs.

Ou‭ ‬(pronounced Oh‭) ‬closed the concert with the Cello Suite No.‭ ‬6,‭ ‬which unlike the other five was written for a five-string‭ ‬instrument,‭ ‬and playing it on a standard cello presents physical challenges in addition to interpretive ones.‭ ‬But‭ ‬it was in good hands:‭ ‬Ou is a fine cellist,‭ ‬a player with‭ ‬masterful technique and a beautiful sound.

The emotional high point of the suite,‭ ‬the Sarabande,‭ ‬was quite lovely,‭ ‬aided by a full-throated treatment of the piece‭’‬s‭ ‬intense‭ ‬melodic line.‭ ‬Ou‭’‬s two Gavottes were crisply played,‭ ‬and‭ ‬in‭ ‬the Gigue,‭ ‬Ou‭ ‬demonstrated‭ ‬admirably clean control of the dance‭’‬s rapid passagework.

The Stringendo series‭’‬ programs this month are of a similarly high quality from the standpoint of repertoire,‭ ‬and to have begun it with these two supreme works of Bach sets a good tone of serious music-making for this effort,‭ ‬and for a time of year when vacation is usually uppermost in the mind.

The next concert in the Stringendo series features Atlanta Symphony violinist Jay Christy‭ ‬and Cleveland Orchestra cellist Alan Harrell,‭ ‬along with baritone Lloyd Mims,‭ ‬Bergonzi String Quartet violinist Glenn Basham,‭ ‬and pianist Tao Lin,‭ ‬who teaches at Lynn University.‭ ‬On the program are‭ ‬Samuel‭ ‬Barber‭’‬s Dover Beach‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬3‭)‬,‭ ‬the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No.‭ ‬1‭ (‬in D minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬49‭)‬,‭ ‬and the Schubert Trout Quintet‭ (‬in A,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬667‭)‬.‭ ‬The concert begins at‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday in the Persson Recital Hall on the PBAU campus.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$15.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬803-2970‭ ‬or send an e-mail to‭ ‬

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