Daily Archives: December 12, 2020

Lady Jess Carries a Torch and a Bow for the Black Mozart

Review: NC School of the Arts Alum Jessica McJunkins, Rebranded as Lady Jess, Returns to Winston-Salem

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-3

When she graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 2009, Jessica McJunkins was already known at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a promising violinist. Returning to her alma mater as winner of UNCSA’s 2020 Alumni Artpreneur Award, the guest soloist at the Watson Chamber Music Hall was established in a career that has extended beyond the classical genre into theatrical and commercial music – and beyond music performance into contracting freelance artists and promoting racial diversity in the industry. And she returned as Lady Jess, somewhat scrambling my expectations.

The name change was not the only last-minute alteration of the program that hit my Inbox on the morning of the concert. Two groups that we had listed on our CVNC calendar, the Brandenburg Ensemble and the Amadeus Players, had withdrawn from the program along with two faculty members. Other than that, only the venue had changed, from the Stevens Center to Watson Hall. The Bartók Ensemble, under the direction of Winston-Salem Symphony associate conductor Karen Ní Bhroin, would play the previously announced works by Paul Hindemith and Samuel Barber, and Lady Jess would appear with the alumni quintet and UNCSA students who had rehearsed with her in two works by Joseph Bologne (1745-1799). Faculty member Kevin Lawrence shared soloing honors with Lady Jess in the Symphonie Concertante for Two Violins.

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-10

Ní Bhroin and the musicians seemed to adjust more readily to the venue change than the audio engineers, for the sound, which seemed to satisfy a scattered live audience at the Watson, was often rudimentary at the other end of the online webcast through my loudspeakers. The new W-S associate conductor had a microphone with her on the podium as she introduced the pieces by Hindemith and Barber that she and her 14-member ensemble would perform, yet the streamed volume was hardly adequate and the clarity of her voice was far from studio quality.

Of course, Ní Bhroin’s COVID mask and her Irish accent weren’t helpful, but here the advantages of Livestream came instantly into play. If your setup at home is like mine, you simply pick up a remote control and increase the volume on your home theatre receiver – or you can replay the whole concert later at your leisure. Now it may have made some of the Bartók group uncomfortable to hear their leader quoting Hindemith on the subject of composing for amateur musicians, but it was certainly illuminating for me.

Yet it quickly became clear that Ní Bhroin had no intentions of going easy on her students even if Hindemith had titled his 1927 compositions Schulwerk. Nor was she inclined to be servile or worshipful toward the music, for the opening Slow movement wasn’t as slow as it could be, and the second movement, marked Slow – Fast, seemed to almost flip the order of these tempos in the Bartóks’ performance, rather brisk from the outset. Ní Bhroin was equally aggressive in shaping her ensemble’s dynamics, adding to the freshness of her approach. She chose the first three of Hindemith’s Five Pieces, ending with the first of two sections marked Lively. There’s an extended stretch where only the first violins are pitted against the violas, before the second violins, cellos, and double basses enter the fray, and the Bartok Ensemble delivered a fine account of the contrast, so the dramatic effect of a finale was achieved.

Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings, originally a movement from the composer’s String Quartet that was famously magnified for orchestra at the request of Arturo Toscanini, doubly fits our moment. It’s well-aligned with performance restrictions imposed statewide and by the CDC, and it’s attuned to our mood – and the need to voice our feelings as the holiday season approaches and the pandemic worsens. My thoughts ran to it recently when Charlotte Symphony performed the Andante religioso movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, and it was certainly welcome to hear such a heartfelt rendition from the Bartók Ensemble. Here the sculpting of the dynamics by Ní Bhroin was far subtler and more gradual, peaking to a dramatic full stop before subsiding into a musical sigh and returning to its signature mournful plaint.

Surely, a couple of 18th century allegros was exactly what a doctor would order after the lugubrious Barber and an intermission, but webcasts, where live and pre-recorded performance seamlessly intermix, need not be saddled with intermissions. UNCSA chancellor Brian Cole sat down with Lady Jess – who sported a completely different mask, dress, and hairdo from what she would be performing with just minutes later. It was definitely a visual sampling of what the lauded alumna’s branding was all about. Cole described the Artpreneur award as recognizing grads who are “business savvy and technologically aware.”

The conversation not only highlighted Lady Jess’s eclectic musical and business interests but also how UNCSA had nurtured them during her undergrad years. Her aims, like those of Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, are to boost classical music into mainstream culture, though the pop stage name seems to take Lady Jess’s pursuit to a more aggressive level. She is also focused on making classical music, the arts, and society more receptive to African Americans – voicing her goals with a certain amount of eloquent, muted impatience as she looks forward to a time when black people have the cultural equity they earned long ago. Her down-to-earth Promised Land is a place where overdue respect is “not something we need to roundtable every time someone dies at the hands of police.” The only sour note in this fascinating colloquy came when Cole lauded his guest as a Fighting Pickle, an albatross all UNCSA alumni must bear.

Born a little more than 10 years before Mozart, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was certainly a fine figure for Lady Jess to champion – and to emulate. As Ní Bhroin rightly observed in her introduction, Bologne was more than a fine composer and violinist who was regarded as “the Black Mozart” (and likely a Mozart mentor), he was also a champion fencer, knighted by the King of France. A few things she might have added to make him worthier of emulation and attention: he was an important orchestra conductor, an important political activist, and a charismatic military leader.

As a promoter, Bologne prevailed upon Haydn to accept the commission for his “Paris” Symphonies. For her Bartók Ensemble, now gone from the Watson stage, she could have added that Bologne had starred in composer François Gossec’s Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra. The rest of us, in the live audience or watching the webcast, would have benefited from knowing that Bologne’s most famous opera, The Anonymous Lover, is currently streaming as a free digital experience at the L.A. Opera website through November 29.

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-18

If you’re familiar with Anne-Marie McDermott’s audacious 2013 recording of three Mozart piano concertos, accompanied by only a string quartet plus double bass, you already know how effective such reductions can be. Playing the Op. 13 Symphonie Concertante in G for Two Violins and Orchestra, Lady Jess and Lawrence enjoyed the advantage of being able to join their accompanying mini-orchestra in playing the intro to the opening Allegro and to rejoin them between their soloing episodes. Unfortunately, the two soloists were not equally well-miked, disadvantaging Lady Jess.

Only one microphone was visible in the video feed, suspended from overhead, slightly right of center. Lady Jess was further left of center, and her solo passages, often repeating what Lawrence had just played, consistently sounded softer and thinner. The five UNCSA alums, with a string quartet spaced evenly around the mic and the double bass in the opposite corner from the soloists, projected nicely. Hints of Lady Jess’s silvery brilliance came across in her first foray, but Lawrence was mellower and turned up his intensity as the movement climaxed, demonstrating that the prof could still keep pace with the alum.

Compared with the London Symphony recording on the Columbia label, the UNCSA performance most noticeably fell short of capturing the beauties of the Symphonie Concertante when the two soloists duetted. Balance and clarity are most important in these exquisite passages. The Watson Hall setup, evidently a work-in-progress if we consider how suddenly the venue was brought into play for this Livestream, was better suited for the Violin Concerto No. 1, which saw Ní Bhroin return to the stage and Lady Jess move closer to centerstage. Both of those moves were helpful, while Lady Jess’s mini-orchestra was beneficially fortified with the addition of two student oboists and two French horns. The wind players were unmasked, of course, housed behind a phalanx of four plexiglass cubicles.

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-2

The Violin Concerto seemed to challenge and excite Lady Jess more than the Symphonie Concertante, offering her longer solos that frisked in the treble and called forth more virtuosity in her fingering and bowing. From the beginning, Ní Bhroin spurred the tempo into its Allegro without letting the pace slacken as it does on the comparatively lackadaisical recording I was able to track down on the Oehms label played by Yura Lee. The ensemble was more spirited here than previously, crisp when their pizzicatos occurred, and buoyed by the wailing of the French horns.

Because of her placement onstage and perhaps because she was so often iterating what the other soloist had just played, Lady Jess seemed to wilt when matched with Lawrence. Alone in the spotlight and allowed to gather more steam, the violinist showed us some true Lady Jess swagger. Throughout the Concerto, she seemed to relish the dialogue with her mini-orchestra, particularly as the tension of the Allegro built at the end with rapidfire exchanges with the alumni army. More than ever, I was convinced that we need to hear more of Joseph Bologne – and more often.

Bullock Brings Folk and Baroque to St. Alban’s

Review: Robin Bullock Plays Guitar and Mandolin

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-13

Watching Robin Bullock with his guitars and mandolin at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson wasn’t exactly a first – we had reviewed a previous appearance. Nor can we feign surprise that Bullock’s program included selections from Turlough O’Carolan, J.S. Bach, and Stephen Foster. Bach and O’Carolan were fixtures in Bullock’s 2017 Music @ St. Alban’s concert – and that concert concluded with “Oh, Shenandoah,” which the guitarist called “the American folksong.” What made this concert so different, three years later, were the changes necessitated by COVID-19: the reduced size of the audience and the move to online streaming. Yet the similarities with the 2017 concert and Bullock’s relaxed personality were comforting, reminders that all is not lost and people can work, create, and recreate in the teeth of a resurgent pandemic.

Bullock has recorded an entire album of work by the blind 18th century Irish bard, so it was puzzling that he started off his 2020 concert with “Lord Inchiquin,” one of the two O’Carolan pieces he performed in 2017. Played on a Martin steel string guitar, the piece delivered more bite than might have been extracted from a harp, the instrument O’Carolan usually composed for, and it was heartening to hear applause ringing out from the small audience at St. Alban’s. Subsequent outbursts of applause sounded suspiciously identical, but critics tend toward cynicism. More and more, the pretense of live performance is being discarded in streaming presentations, so a fade-dissolve can now replace the tedium of watching a performer switch from one instrument to another, tuning up, and whatnot. We could rejoin the performance after instrument switches without any awkwardness, and Bullock was sufficiently at ease to deliver his intros while tuning. In fact, the last two songs were done in a single continuous take.

Double intros were necessary for both of Bullock’s next two selections. As a preamble to Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” Bullock told us how folksinger Tom Paxton had advised him to compile an album of American guitar classics – now available at the guitarist’s website and titled, predictably enough, An American Guitar Album. “Susannah,” Bullock then informed us, was Foster’s first hit, published when the lad was 22. Lamentably, Bullock felt no compulsion to play the verses of this classic as Foster had written them, leaving me to wonder where he had misplaced Susannah’s buckwheat cake, the hill she came down, and the weather. Obviously, he was more enamored with the chorus, where he clung closer to the melody, but Bullock wasn’t exactly kind to the lyric. Each time he played the refrain, he added a syllable to “cry” and “Alabama.”

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-8

Switching to mandolin in the blink of an edit, Bullock ventured beyond his CD compilation with the next O’Carolan piece he played, “Carolan’s Concerto,” enhancing the adventure by coupling the harp piece with a movement adapted from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, Bouree I and II. Bullock’s finger-picking here, fleet and sure, was more sparsely sprinkled with strums and grace notes, yielding a more discernable melody – and a more harp-like sound – than his previous foray on guitar into the Irishman’s work. The seamless transition into the C Major Cello Suite, easily detected by anyone familiar with the great recordings by Pablo Casals or Yo-Yo Ma, further shored up my confidence that he was not straying far from the original compositions.

If the mandolin didn’t sound quite right for the Cello Suite, Bullock was more discerning in his choices of instruments for the movements excerpted from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1. Again, this was a piece that does not appear on any of the 21 downloads at Bullock’s online store. The are actually four pairs of movements in this B minor Partita, rooted in French dances, namely the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Bouree. Bullock chose the Sarabande and its complementary Double movement. The rich sound crisp articulation of the Martin guitar was key to Bullock’s most satisfying Bach performance on the languid Sarabande, and his Gibson mandolin meshed beautifully with the speedier Double. Obviously, Bullock wasn’t taking his inspiration from the 2017 account of the Double movement by Christian Tetzlaff, who hardly varies the tempos at all. More likely, Bullock took his cue from recordings by Midori or Gidon Kremer, who also hit the accelerator on the Double.

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-4

Favoring one of his custom-made guitars, notable for their wolf paw print insignias on the marker spots along their necks, Bullock now turned to “Westlin Winds,” a tune associated with its Robert Burns lyric. The melody lurked closer to the surface than “Oh, Susannah,” though you couldn’t emerge from the concert knowing either melody unless you had heard it before. Yet the arrangement was quite lovely, soaring up to the treble for some unexpectedly ethereal interpolations after its folksy beginning, probably more woodsy than windy but vividly capturing the autumnal scent of Burns’s lyric.

Having primed us earlier with Foster’s first classic, Bullock left us with “Beautiful Dreamer,” said to be his valedictory song. In his intro, the guitarist spoke of the serenity and acceptance he found in both the melody and the lyric, hinting that it could be construed as a voice from beyond calling to the songwriter, who died at the age of 37, even younger than Burns. While the textual analysis that Bullock offered hits a road hazard when it runs into “queen of my song,” his oral reading of the lyric and his instrumental adoration of the melody were luminous and sublime. There was little ornament here, and the variant chords that Bullock imposed on the melody after his opening chorus added poignancy and a country music flavor – clarifying for me why the slightly cowboy-tinged recording I found on Spotify by Marty Robbins far outshone the more elaborate arrangement sung by Bing Crosby. Especially moving was the beginning of the final chorus, where the guitarist slowed down and hushed to a whisper, as if he might not be able to continue. We’ve had a painful amount of this kind of serenity over the past eight months, and perhaps in that moment, Bullock felt an inrush of solemnity amid the serene.

 

Charlotte Symphony Returns, Stoutly Resisting Escapism

Review:  CSO Livestreams Grieg and Tchaikovsky

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-07

Over the past seven months of an unabated pandemic, I’ve become more and more immersed in reporting on and then reviewing performing arts companies and their responses to COVID-19 as it continues to swallow up the norms of our cultural life. Lately, I’ve become fascinated by what artists think we wish to see and what they wish to say. The balance seems to have tilted toward diverting and amusing us while easing the burden on our fragile attention spans. All of us wish to escape this moment, I’m sure, but ceding the drama in our lives to COVID news bulletins and political campaign rhetoric has seemed like a wan, impoverished response.

Sadly, the toolkits of artists who wish to address the moment – not to mention their monetary resources – have been drained by the necessities of social distancing and shrunken live audience limits. Larger organizations like Charlotte Symphony have had to pivot multiple times as the course of events spun out of control. Indoor concerts had to be cancelled late in the spring, and then outdoor summer events, both previously planned and hastily improvised, also fell by the wayside.

Hence a pivot to virtuality with a new CSO On Demand livestreaming series. It was doubly satisfying to see Christopher Warren-Green and a sizable contingent of his musicians onstage again at the Knight Theater, even if I was watching on a smart TV, for they hadn’t returned merely to serve up some musical pabulum. Edvard Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings both have extended contemplative and elegiac episodes, echoing and commiserating with how we often feel in these mournful times instead of prodding us into forgetting.

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-12

Even before they played, you couldn’t think Symphony was back to normal if you were watching. Winds, brass, and percussion were missing in action, so the stage wasn’t teeming with musicians and instruments. Nearly 40 percent of CSO’s string players were absent from this skeleton crew, spread out and socially-distanced on the Knight stage. Yes, I had expected Warren-Green and his orchestra to be masked, but the sight of them still took me aback, and I didn’t anticipate how different the ensemble would look when no two players shared the same music stand.

Whether it was hygiene, democratic deliberations, or aesthetics, the normal formalities of concert dress codes were relaxed, further emphasizing – or memorializing – that we were not back to normal. All were masked. Women were liberated to wear colored blouses or sweaters. Men wore jackets, but white shirts were not mandatory, and none wore neckties. Even with the purple-and-blue background lighting, the overall look didn’t suggest a triumphant celebration. All of these alterations seemed to color the music, making the opening Praeludium of the Holberg Suite sound braver and less festive. Similarly, I found the ensuing Sarabande more affecting, solemn, and poignant than I will if I revisit this concert at Symphony’s website in 2022.

The scent of springtime was unmistakable from the start of the middle movement Gavotte with hints of jollity in its brisk Allegretto. Nothing short of piercing heartbreak came across in the longest movement of the suite, the Air marked Andante religioso, all the more keenly felt when the music faded to a whisper before the last swell of feeling. Thankfully, concertmaster Calin Lupanu brought us back from this precipice with some truly zestful fiddling in the folksy Rigaudon finale, all of the other strings sustaining the merry Allegro con brio tempo behind him with pizzicatos, until his solo reached its jazzy release.

I don’t have any record of hearing Charlotte Symphony playing the Holberg before, but I own two recordings of the suite, one of which I reviewed in 2009, with Yuri Bashmet leading the Moscow Soloists. One of the things I particularly enjoyed on that CD was how the sound of the 17-member ensemble shuttled between the textured graininess of chamber music and the homogenized sheen of orchestral performance. That same delicious variety was audible in the Knight Theater webcast, particularly when I listened via Bluetooth on my Boston Acoustic loudspeakers via my Yamaha Receiver. Some of that texture Symphony’s 22 players was blurred when I listened through the same audio system via Chromecast, which also produced less delightful definition in the pizzicatos.

That same enhancement via Bluetooth was evident when I replayed the Tchaikovsky Serenade, which also appears on the previously mentioned Bashmet recording. So does Mozart’s famous Serenade No. 13, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” – and with good reason. Tchaikovsky’s piece was written as an homage to Mozart’s Serenades, quickly finished while he was at work on the 1812 Overture and esteemed by the composer as having more heart and artistic merit than his flashier warhorse. Warren-Green didn’t seem to be aiming for Mozart as his trim orchestra launched into the initial Pezzo in forma di sonatina, which moves from an Andante non troppo tempo to Allegro moderato and back again. The massive sound Warren-Green elicited from his ensemble at the slower tempo evoked Bach more vividly than Mozart, and at the quicker Allegro juncture, the music was like the involuted canons Bach or Beethoven might whip up – or a dizzying 3/4 dance that might adorn one of Tchaikovsky’s own ballets.

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-06

With more of a ballroom ambiance as Warren-Green slowed and accelerated his tempos, the dancing flavor carried over to the Valse, where the cellos heightened the sense of intimacy with their warmth and tenderness. Beginning with a weepy whisper, the penultimate Élégie was the most tragic music of the evening, filled to bursting with bittersweet nostalgia. With pizzicatos handed off from section to section – four violas, four cellos, and two double basses to Warren-Green’s right, and 12 violins to his left – optimum audio reproduction paid especially huge dividends here. The orchestra has notably mastered playing softly under Warren-Green’s tenure, and the ending of the Larghetto was absolutely sublime.

The Tema russo conclusion began at a hushed Andante, hardly distinguishable from the Élégie that had preceded. With the onset of the Allegro con spirito section, we felt the joy and exuberance we had been craving during the middle movement of this Serenade – and realized how much we craved them. Before an even more rousing reprise of this celebration, the cellos ignited a romantic theme – and turbulent episode that built to a climax. A stately melody seemingly materialized out of nowhere, encapsulating all bravery, anguish, and grief that had weighed upon us through the evening before a final celebratory romp. Grimly, we were reminded how much more genuine joy feels after we’ve endured suffering and catharsis. Welcome back, Symphony, I’ve missed such authenticity.

 

Company SBB Takes to ZOOM and the Outdoors

Review: Company SBB at Duke Performances’ Show Must Go Online

By Perry Tannenbaum

Company SBB narrowly missed me in 2018 when they decided to tour the Spoleto Festival in Italy instead of Spoleto Festival USA. If the company founded by Stefanie Batten Bland had turned south instead of east from their New York HQ, my first encounter with them would have given me a more typical sampling of the Jerome Robbins Award winner’s work as a dancer and choreographer. On their recent appearance with Duke Performances, rebranded for the pandemic as their “Show Must Go Online” series, Company SBB veered away from stage presentation in both of their new pieces.

“Mondays at Two” gathered its dancers onto the ZOOM platform, building upon the troupe’s weekly meetings with additional footage shot by individual dancers, in imaginative – often surreal – TikTok fashion. “Currents” liberated us from the confines of the SBB dancers’ webcams and cellphone cameras, taking us outdoors to a secluded stream in upstate New York, where a trio of dancers, including Batten Bland, were part of a cinematic design that was ominously surreal and naturally serene.

Batten Bland’s relaxed webcast introductions not only yielded useful insights on the works that followed but also offered us hints and glimpses of how she inspires her dancers. “Mondays at Two” began with the sort of ZOOM tableau we’ve become accustomed to during our prolonged lockdowns, only instead of crosstalk between 18 participants, there was music by Paul Damian Hogan. Warmups no longer happened haphazardly on a studio floor or on ballet barres against walls and mirrors. In a ZOOM universe, dancers mostly limbered up close to their webcams, stretching their necks or rapidly bobbing their heads so that multiple waves of hair dotted the screen. The claustrophobic confinement of ZOOM meetings was quickly established, humorously followed by stillness, dejection, and undisguised boredom. We could all commiserate.

If dance under normal circumstances explores the possibilities and meanings of motion, it was clear that, in creating her pieces during quarantined pandemic conditions, Batten Bland also wished to convey the sheer preciousness of movement. While all her other dancers slouched, moped, or blankly stared at their monitors, one of the screens in the second row lit up yellow along its frame, inevitably grabbing our attention. The dancer who owned that screen, Claire Gieringer, clearly relished the attention, for the busy eye-catching scene that filled her screen was revealed to be a cellphone as she drew it away from her webcam. At that point, there was a doubled “through the looking glass” reveal sucking us in: we were rushed into the dancer’s bedroom while we zoomed into the dancer’s screen until it was the only screen, all the ZOOM frames stripped away.

Now there was a succession of privately filmed and edited videos from the dancers, individually or in pairs. In-production and post-production editing created assorted surreal effects, and occasionally multiple videos from multiple sources were juxtaposed. Prevailing themes among the dancers’ videos were walls, halls, and doors. One dancer trembled before a formidable double- or triple-locked front door, another writhed and danced against her door, while yet another dancer emerged from a closet into her partner’s bedroom. One of the cellphones was propped inside a drawer or storage nook, yielding a similar feel as a dancer peered in.

Perspectives were often strange and unique as the experiences of cabin fever and confinement were explored. Only in the final sequence, filmed by a middle-aged couple, did anybody venture outside – even then, the excursion was brief and plagued with distrust. The turning back of the male partner to the anxious female partner waiting at the front door circled us back to the full troupe on their ZOOM screens. They could have been kissing us or each other goodbye as we faded out, but the meaning of their parting moues was ambiguous.

While “Current” took us outdoors, neither the weather nor the mood was sunny. Jean Claude Dien’s cinematography left the opening sequence a bit cryptic, for he was expecting us to notice the falling of a single yellow leaf – the preciousness of motion – against a relatively vast forest scene. Unlike Gieringer’s antics, the falling leaf could be overlooked, though the principle was the same: a small spot of activity amid a vast surrounding stillness. We cut to a leaf, presumably that leaf, as it floated downstream until it collided with the arm of Jennifer Payán, lying motionless in the shallow water.

Soon we had a shot of a canoe adrift on the stream and then a gloomier cliffside scene along the shore, where the three dancers performed individually or collectively, never really connecting or acknowledging each other’s presence. In the dim light near the cliff, movements seemed particularly anguished, desperate, and despairing. The dancers’ wide-eyed blankness put me in mind of how the insane Renfield is usually portrayed onstage in productions of Dracula. Joining Payán in these eerie revels was Batten Bland and Oluwadamilare Ayorinde. Neither of the women’s full, silky dresses, designed by Shane Ballard, was especially intended for camping or canoeing, and Ayorinde’s outfit, pants and vest cut from a khaki-colored tweed, was more suited for a night on an urban street than an afternoon on a lonely stream.

As the camera repositioned and we saw the dancers positioned in front of the stream, movement became more dazed. Batten Bland was the most inert, seemingly catatonic. When his tempo quickened, Hogan’s music came to the forefront of the cinematic concept as the dancers began shaking and trembling. Intercut with this suddenly spasmodic choreography, we saw shots of the rushing water, and the sound of the water suddenly became prominent in the soundscape, hushed as suddenly as it was unleashed. More spasmodic action and quicker cuts ensued as the drumbeat reached the apex of its crescendo.

All three dancers were shown individually in the water – luxuriating, lazing, or warily hunting – or collectively huddled onshore, still emotionally disconnected from one another, perhaps too enervated to connect. As if all we had seen since the opening sequence had been a flashback, the music and the action subsided. The pace of the water’s flow was greater now than before, and we saw more leaves going with the flow. At last, the leaves led us back to the dancers, all recumbent in the shallow water, as lifeless as before. Rather than morbidly fatalistic, the lingering impression was of a lyrical beauty, of a place where nature’s eternal cycles prevail.

Finckel-Han Deliver Powerful Beethoven and Brahms

Review:  Wu Han and David Finckel at Duke Performances

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Finckel and Han~6

Wu Han and David Finckel, longtime artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, are among the world’s greatest ambassadors of chamber music – with talents and personalities worthy of their mission. I’ve seen them together in live performance on at least three occasions in past years at the Savannah Music Festival, and before those encounters, I had seen Finckel play without his wife at the Aspen Music Festival in epic two-night traversal of the Bartok string quartets while he was still the cellist with the Emerson String Quartet.

I’m still hoping to see them together at the Music@Menlo festival, which the New York-based couple established in California back in 2003, at some future date when air travel is no longer a game of Russian roulette, provided that the premises haven’t been reduced to cinders. In the meantime, I was delighted that Duke Performances was offering a virtual opportunity to see Han and Finckel online in a concert of works by Beethoven and Brahms – and curious to see how these elegant performers would handle the technical side of their webcast.

The video setup was fairly inconspicuous as the power couple opened with Beethoven’s pioneering Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, the first of two pieces written in 1796 for no less than Friedrich Wilhelm II, the cello-playing Emperor of Prussia. It was Finckel, in the charmingly shared introductory remarks, who pointed out that this was the first piece written for these instruments that placed the cello on equal footing. Three unseen cameras faced the players as they began the Adagio sostenuto against a bosky backdrop of what appeared to be the couple’s back porch, looking out on a brightly-lit forest that filled up nearly all we could see through the generously-sized sliding glass doors of their studio. Sound was warm and rich as Finckel immediately took the lead, Han helping to build the tension of the movement until we reached its crest.

Around that point, when we verged on the seamless transition to the middle Allegro, without our having seen a cameraman silhouetted against the burnt-out background, there were suddenly close-up shots of Han from a camera in the opposite direction that somehow didn’t expose any of the three camera placements that had already been deployed. When video was handed back to the frontal cameras, I finally noticed what looked like an iPhone mounted inconspicuously on a slender tripod just beyond the Han’s Steinway, roughly parallel with her left ear.

2020~Finckel and Han~10

This was an excellent vantage point to watch Han’s light touch as she sped the tempo into the brighter Allegro and its sunnier melody, the most dramatic moment of the linked movements before they concluded. Finckel repeated the catchy melody with less filigree but no shortage of merriment and gusto. Overhead shots, which began to proliferate toward the end of the Allegro, revealed a dangling microphone less than a yard above Finckel’s right shoulder, almost directly in line with his bowing elbow.

With Finckel performing the Cello Sonata without any visible score and his microphone mostly out of sight, the look was very clean, particularly since Han was using a tablet to read her part, obviating the need for a page-turner. The two shared a dramatic cadenza, Finckel supplying most of the gravitas, before the rousing, effervescent finish. The sonata’s finale, a Rondo marked Allegro vivace, initially sounded anticlimactic in the wake of the middle Allegro, which is more than twice as long. Finckel and Han gradually stirred up its strength and intensity without sacrificing its essential merriment.

2020~Finckel and Han~8

After the ensuing blackout, violinist Arnaud Sussmann and violist Paul Neubauer materialized, bows at the ready, for Brahms’ Quartet for Piano and Strings No. 1 in G Minor, firmly settled in the space formerly occupied by Finckel, while the cellist crossed over to the right side of our screens. Camera positions also changed. One placement put the newcomers exclusively in view, and the cellphone near Han was repositioned to give us a more frontal – and greatly improved – view of the keyboard. Lighting was also enhanced: the background greenery was not so nearly bleached away by the sun and additional indoor light insinuated itself upon the string players.

While it was natural to see Han and Finckel performing unmasked as a duo, I was a little surprised to see no adjustment with the arrival of Sussmann and Neubauer, who also played unmasked. Further decluttering the presentation, both the violinist and the violist mounted tablets on their music stands, so I never saw any pages turning. Finckel alone was old school, with a score that protruded from the right side of his stand, presumably paper.2020~Finckel and Han~9

All of the musicians knew their way around this Brahms, confident and collegial in a setting that was marvelously intimate. Acoustics were so beautifully balanced that no engineering seemed to be involved, the music forward and effortlessly in our faces in a way that chamber music in a concert hall rarely is. Seemingly positioned so close to the performers, we could easily see their camaraderie as they collectively savored the twists and turns – and the peaks and valleys – of the opening Allegro, described by Finckel as “almost epic.” The group was genial and jolly in this performance than Emil Gilels’ mighty DGG recording with the Amadeus Quartet but no less convincing. The ensuing Intermezzo had a nice brisk tempo for its Allegro ma non troppo marking, with plenty of moody, brooding heft, culminating with a charming little coda where Han shined – somewhat belying Finckel’s description of the movement as “perhaps the most wistful scherzo-style movement ever composed,” but never disappointing.

More twists and turns greeted us in the Andante con moto with sweet lyricism early on, Han continuing to assert herself, followed by a majestic rhapsodic episode that broke into a deliciously pompous military march. The upper strings combined to steer us into lullaby land, and Sussman took the lead in a climactic ascent before the other players imposed a soft touch-down. It was in the closing Rondo alla Zingarese, described by Finckel as “one of the wildest folkdances in chamber music,” that the congeniality between the players paid off most handsomely.2020~Finckel and Han~3

From the outset, a thrilling gallop, there was no question that this foursome was taking the Presto marking seriously, increasing the excitement with sudden decisive shifts in dynamics, triggered by Sussmann’s assaults on the treble. Han took over control, calming things down, while the strings plucked pizzicatos in anticipation of the restart. The upper strings launched a new theme before Finckel and Neubauer sweetly launched another. Ideas continued to bounce unpredictably between the strings and the piano with hairpin changes in mood and tempo until Han triggered the final frenzy. There was enough speed and fire to convince you that the musicians were racing each other to the finish – but more than enough virtuosity and togetherness to reassure us that they were all fully synchronized and having tremendous fun. It wasn’t relief flowing through the room and through the screen when the music was done. It was pure Gypsy joy.