Saturday, July 2, 2011

Music review: Kim's Schubert stellar at last Stringendo concert

Jonah Kim.

By Greg Stepanich

The cellist Jonah Kim has spent several years concertizing and living in‭ ‬South Florida,‭ ‬including studies at Lynn University,‭ ‬all the while building a wider career from two other home bases in New York and Prague.‭

Tuesday night‭’‬s closing concert of the Stringendo School for Strings faculty series‭ ‬at Palm Beach Atlantic University‭’‬s Persson Hall‭ ‬showed why it is that he‭’‬s been successful.

Kim,‭ ‬a native of Seoul,‭ ‬South Korea,‭ ‬performed one of the great chestnuts of the cello repertoire,‭ ‬the Sonata for Arpeggione‭ (‬in A minor,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬821‭) ‬of Franz Schubert,‭ ‬and played it with surpassing excellence:‭ ‬superb intonation,‭ ‬brilliant fingerwork,‭ ‬and a spirit of fun and discovery that he managed to evoke even though he‭’‬s surely played this piece many dozens of times.

With the able,‭ ‬expert accompaniment of Taiwanese pianist Yueh-Yin Liao,‭ ‬a doctoral student at the University of Miami,‭ ‬Kim simply took care of things,‭ ‬Schubert-wise,‭ ‬giving the piece everything it needed,‭ ‬from high-spirited,‭ ‬forceful rhythms to singing melody,‭ ‬and doing it with technical perfection.

But there was more to his performance than just spotlessness.‭ ‬He and Liao collaborated well on little touches such as the extra emphasis they gave to the final cadential figure each time it returned,‭ ‬and Kim also made a point of stressing the chromatic motif that leads back into the opening theme of the first movement,‭ ‬echoing it in the transition to the third movement.‭

His intense,‭ ‬cutting tone made his flawless arrivals in the A-string stratosphere stand out that much more,‭ ‬and‭ ‬gave the beautiful song of the second movement a pleading,‭ ‬heart-on-sleeve quality.‭ ‬Tying it all together was a sense of engagement‭ ‬that made this nearly‭ ‬200-year-old music sound utterly fresh.

Kim was equally fine as the cellist in the showboat‭ ‬Passacaglia‭ ‬that the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen built for violin and cello‭ (‬originally viola‭)‬ out of a keyboard suite by Handel.‭ ‬The violinist was David Mastrangelo,‭ ‬an able member of the Naples Philharmonic who,‭ ‬like Kim‭ (‬who stood up for the last‭ ‬variation‭)‬,‭ ‬couldn‭’‬t resist some physical theatrics as the piece traveled on its increasingly flashy way.

While Kim‭’‬s intonation was spot-on throughout,‭ ‬Mastrangelo‭’‬s was not,‭ ‬and in a piece like this,‭ ‬which is about dialogue and stuntsmanship,‭ ‬that made for some less-than-ideal harmonic clashes.‭ ‬Both musicians attacked their parts with verve and fire,‭ ‬and it made for an explosive ending to the concert that the large audience acclaimed.

The program also featured a rarity in the‭ ‬early‭ ‬Piano Quintet‭ (‬in C minor‭) ‬of the Russian composer Alexander Borodin.‭ ‬Like much of Borodin‭’‬s work,‭ ‬no doubt because the busy scientist really was only a part-time musician,‭ ‬it‭’‬s an uneven piece that‭’‬s saved by Borodin‭’‬s gift for exotic-tinged melody.‭ ‬Liao‭ ‬was the pianist,‭ ‬joined by Mastrangelo,‭ ‬second violinist Renata Guitart,‭ ‬violist David Pedraza,‭ ‬and cellist Claudio Jaffe.‭

Luckily for the ensemble,‭ ‬the piano tuning problems that plagued the third concert of this series had been taken care of,‭ ‬and that contributed to a smooth,‭ ‬delicately balanced sound overall.‭ ‬Much of this work has a back-and-forth tradeoff between piano and strings,‭ ‬and the strings blended nicely on their own when they weren‭’‬t playing with Liao.

This was particularly evident during the‭ ‬first movement,‭ ‬which after an elegant entrance by the piano settled into a comfortable,‭ ‬full-bodied sound.‭ ‬Tempos were on the slow side,‭ ‬and there wasn‭’‬t much in the way of storm or stress,‭ ‬but it was pleasant and attractive.

The Scherzo‭ ‬bustled along amiably enough,‭ ‬with good work from the ensemble,‭ ‬though the Trio tempo was a shade too poky,‭ ‬and the movement in general could have used more lift.‭ ‬With the return in the Finale to the mood of the opening,‭ ‬the group was on familiar ground‭; ‬this was a fine reading of this interesting quintet,‭ ‬and the surprise quiet ending was well-judged.

Mastrangelo opened the concert with the second of the Belgian composer Eugène Ysaÿe‭’‬s six‭ ‬sonatas for solo violin‭ (‬in A‭ ‬minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬27,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2‭)‬,‭ ‬which borrows from the Bach E major Partita‭ (‬BWV‭ ‬1006‭)‬ and the‭ ‬Dies irae plainchant melody‭ ‬that was‭ ‬also beloved of Berlioz,‭ ‬Liszt and Rachmaninov.‭ ‬The violinist introduced the work by playing the first movement of the Bach,‭ ‬which had spotty intonation and sounded like it was something‭ ‬of a struggle.

In the Ysaÿe itself,‭ ‬a monstrously difficult piece,‭ ‬Mastrangelo also had intonation difficulties at the outset‭ (‬Prelude‭)‬,‭ ‬but got things more aligned in the second movement‭ (‬Malinconia‭)‬,‭ ‬where Mastrangelo‭’‬s most distinctive sound,‭ ‬a delicate thinness in the higher registers,‭ ‬could also be heard.‭ ‬He handled the long passage of rapid arpeggios in the third movement‭ (‬Dance of the Shadows‭)‬ capably,‭ ‬and in the finale‭ (‬The Furies‭) ‬he addressed the more advanced harmonies forthrightly,‭ ‬without shying away,‭ ‬which is important to getting Ysaÿe‭’‬s on-the-fringe compositional aesthetic across.

The entire performance lacked a certain sense of nerve and drama,‭ ‬but aside from the tuning troubles,‭ ‬Mastrangelo took on this challenge well.‭ ‬Also,‭ ‬it helped show that the organizers of the relatively new Stringendo series are aiming high,‭ ‬and that‭’‬s welcome news for chamber music fans looking for sustenance in the South Florida summer.‭

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