Thursday, May 4, 2017

Adventurous cellist and pianist conclude Ensemble Music season with a touch of charisma

When the programming is well-judged, recent music consorts very well on the same program with old music. It's been argued
Jay Campbell, cello, and Conor Hanick, piano, concluded EMS season.
that the conservatism of classical-music audiences tends to make such mixing inadvisable. And some new-music advocates find that receptive audiences make all the difference in concert quality, thus justifying segregation, in their view.

In their season-ending concert for Ensemble Music Society Wednesday night, Conor Hanick and Jay Campbell made a strong case for letting "advanced" idioms of the 20th century (and on other programs, they don't neglect the present century, either) stand shoulder-to-shoulder with well-established ways of creating music. The best thing about the way they did it, besides performance excellence, is that the older pieces had something of an outlier quality with respect to the mainstream.

Take the two Beethoven works the piano-cello duo programmed, for example. There's something more arresting about Beethoven's Theme and Variations on "Bei männern, welche Liebe fühlen" (from Mozart's "Magic Flute"), WoO 46, than the other sets of Beethoven cello-piano variations on another composer's tune: "See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes" from Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus" and Mozart's "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" (also from "The Magic Flute").

It's the last of Beethoven's efforts in this genre, the "Bei männern" variations (no opus number, and the German abbreviation WoO can be puzzling to Anglophones: it stands for "Werk ohne Opuszahl," work without an opus number) that the duo selected. Its understated beginning and first several variations are inviting, although Hanick and Campbell made them borderline cryptic, a little too detached and pointillistic for my taste. But that choice made sense with the startling transition to the first minor variation, which is hauntingly beautiful.  It was also an indication that this duo is not so determinedly modernistic it can't play tenderly as well. Later, there's a particularly aggressive variation that was aptly projected.

The choice of Beethoven sonata was also stunning: No. 4 in C major, op. 102, no. 1. As the program notes indicate, the work's unconventional form  — just two movements, each opening slowly and expansively so as not to seem introductory —  acts as if Beethoven were saying: "Ach, who needs 'sonata' as everyone has understood it? Raus!"

The solid partnership of the duo was exemplary in the first movement, with each instrument displaying a different character in the manner later to be exploited by Elliott Carter in his "Duo" for violin and piano. The transition to the second-movement transition was keenly judged, and the peekaboo ending was positively Haydnesque, with more tartness to the joke than was the norm for Beethoven's most eminent Viennese teacher.

Debussy's late Cello Sonata is another work for this combination that has an oblique way of posing the instruments against each other. The Prologue was heart-stoppingly magical, its "sostenuto" (sustained) direction quite evenly carried out. Campbell's pizzicato in the second movement was extraordinarily expressive. The finale had cello and piano in a frisky mood — one of those miracles one finds often from suffering composers (Debussy was dying painfully of cancer) that are oddly life-affirming. The piece is hardly out of the mainstream, but it is undeniably quirky, and thus suited the program well.

The same goes for Leos Janacek's "Pohadka" (Fairy Tale), the concert's  remaining duo work, a programmatic piece so vividly played that it seemed almost a hologram of the story the program notes recounted for EMS concertgoers. Janacek's unique conciseness in making melodies that are more than motives and using them in both formally cohesive and expressive ways was fully engaged in this performance.

Each artist put an unaccompanied piece on the program that stood out from the older works yet boosted their appeal mysteriously. Campbell performed "Kottos" by Iannis Xenakis, a competition piece from 1977 that harks back to Greek mythology. The title figure is a ferocious, 100-handed giant. Xenakis' reputation for requiring outsize virtuosity in works following abstruse mathematical procedures was well suited to the topic. The piece opens with a grating, toneless growl and soon features wispy yet assertive glissandos demanding a delicate touch. There's lots of rhythmic jumpiness, some of it settling into march-like patterns. There are massive tone clusters and an abundance of opaque, vibratoless figures. Campbell tied the whole thing together expertly. And it subtly bridged the other two programmatic works on the second half, the Janacek and the Debussy.

Hanick inserted Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Klavierstuck No. 4, IX" between the two Beethoven works. Introducing it by endorsing a fellow musician's praise of the piece for "suspending our sense of what time is," the pianist gave an enthralling performance. At the start, there are thick, regularly spaced chords that fade gradually toward silence, and soon a variety of untethered figures that seemingly float off into the empyrean. Spaces between these articulated chords and figures are huge, in which we hear by virtue of the sustaining pedal the gradual decay of struck notes. There's something authentically cosmic about the piece, as if Stockhausen were extending toward infinity the implications of Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question."

New and old — companions on the same concert?  Of course, provided the musicians know what to juxtapose and how to package their selections! Oh, and play them superbly.