Top-Caliber Technique on Display

Thursday, June 9, 2011

pianist Inon Barnatan

AT THE EIGHTH Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music concert Monday afternoon, Geoff Nuttall, host and director for chamber music, addressed the Dock Street Theatre house as “the world’s best audience,” a fitting complement to the world’s best musicians.

The program included a Mozart piano concerto, a solo piano piece by Mendelssohn, and sandwiched between, the Benjamin Britten cello sonata—all expertly performed.

Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan, who has concertized extensively to great acclaim in Europe and the United States, opened with a short, devilishly difficult Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14 by the 15 year-old Felix Mendelssohn.

After a slow introduction, the rondo took off with an energetic display of melodic music, typically associated with such piano giants as Franz Liszt. The gifted Barnatan easily maneuvered through Mendelssohn’s maze of notes in a bravura performance of this lush Romantic composition.

Internationally renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein joined her frequent chamber music partner, Barnatan, for Bejamin Britten’s Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 65. Composed in 1960 for the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the sonata is one of several compositions penned by the composer for this Olympian of cellists.

Weilerstein and Barnatan found no problems with Britten’s technically brilliant fireworks, with its austere, poetic vision. Using advanced techniques, Britten’s emotionally draining work, with its frenetic tempos, taking wild and serious turns, came alive in the pair’s firm and dynamic reading.

This modern music was disturbing, if not outright abrasive, and not easy to listen to. It was composed so that Rostropovich could show off his technique. It also allowed Weilerstein to show off hers—in spades.

cellist Alisa Weilerstein

A piano concerto with a chamber group? Nuttall explained that he had discovered an arrangement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 by Austrian pianist and composer Carl Czerny. Czerny clocked in over 800 opus numbers, not to mention arrangements and works without opus numbers. Nuttall explained that all was fine until the group started to rehearse Czerny’s arrangement and then they decided he must have put it together for a party.

Whatever its limitations and the group’s improvements to it, the arranged piano concerto provided a perfect vehicle for the small chamber group consisting of pianist Pedja Muzijevic, flautist Tara Helen O’Connor, violinists Daniel Phillips and Nuttall, violist Hsin-Yun Huang, cellist Christopher Costanza, and bassist Anthony Manza.

Muzijevic and the chamber group played with brisk tempos and such intensity and determination that the composition almost rose to symphonic proportions. Muzijevic revealed Mozart’s drama and poetry in a performance without compare.

The audience rose in a standing ovation. Earlier, they gave each of the two previous works a Charleston semi-standing ovation (about half stood, the rest remained seated). I can understand sitting for the Britten, but for the Mendelssohn?

The acoustics in the newly renovated Dock Street Theatre remain at the top of the list of local venues for music. Clarity and volume, with little reverb or reflections, plus top-down frequency reproduction, are the theater’s hallmarks.  No doubt that is because the chamber music performers are in front of the festival back drop with performers under or in front of the proscenium arch.

Staged theatrical productions seem to be another matter, particularly with companies not used to having half their voices disappearing into the fly space above the stage. Some need amplification for dialogue and, unless done correctly, this miracle of modern science produces an unintelligible muddle. Thirty plus years ago local theater troupes had no problem with voice projection into the orchestra and balcony seating. And there has been little, if any, change in the basic acoustical signature of the theater since then. Go figure.

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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
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