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Clarity, but Little Fire

January 22, 2008

“Intoxicated and With Fire” is the title of the third movement of Schumann’s Phantasiestücke for cello and piano, written five years before the composer’s attempted suicide and seven years before his death in an insane asylum. Listening to pianist Aleck Karis and cellist Charles Curtis’ Music at Meyer performance at the Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco on Monday night, however, you would never have guessed that the piece was composed by someone courting madness. Throughout the piece and, indeed, the evening, Karis and Curtis chose coolness and calm over intoxication and fire.
The result was a concert of Romantic music as seen through the eyes of the 20th century — specifically of about 1950 and onward, when classical musicians were still quite wary of intoxication and fire. A quick glance at the performers’ bios reveals a distinct inclination for music of the last four decades, with names like Elliott Carter and La Monte Young featuring prominently. The stage demeanor of the players probably works quite well for this repertoire, but it was less convincing for Schumann, Brahms, and Berg.

Karis, in particular, assumed a stoic mask that never wavered throughout the performance. He handled the gentle lyricism of Schumann’s second movement the same way he did the erratic outbursts of the third, making both sound somewhat arbitrary. Karis seemed to avoid the spotlight, letting Curtis do most of the musical talking.

Curtis, for his part, did contribute some emotional nuance through a wide array of facial expressions. But these seemed rather forced when compared to his determinedly rigid posture. At several points, Curtis used his passages of rest to scrutinize his fingers; though I’m sure this had some perfectly functional purpose, this listener couldn’t help but think that he was examining his fingernails, as if refusing to be taken in by the music.
Acoustical Command
As performers of contemporary music often do, both Karis and Curtis displayed virtuosic command over the acoustical properties of their instruments. In Brahms’ F-Major Sonata for Cello and Piano, Karis (whose recording of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano was well-received by Gramophone in 1999) expertly deployed the damper pedal to achieve exactly the right balance of clarity and resonance — a fitting effect for a piece whose first movement betrays the influence of Brahms’ mighty Third Symphony of the same key.

But Brahms’ musical language — in many ways even more tempestuous than Schumann’s — was largely lost in the clocklike precision of Karis and Curtis. (Indeed, you could almost hear the metronome ticking when the duo soldiered through the tender second movement, marked “Adagio affetuoso.”) Karis preferred to smooth out the transitions between loud and soft passages, thus making any sense of surprise impossible. One notable loss was Brahms’ idiosyncratic sense of rhythm. Many of the cello sonata’s melodies are peppered with subtle but palpable rhythmic bumps — a triplet here, a syncopation there — that help propel the music. But Karis, undoubtedly an expert on rhythmic complexity (given his experience with Elliott Carter’s music), executed Brahms’ rhythms as if they were warm-up exercises.

A welcome addition of warmth and personality came with Anthony Burr, the clarinetist who joined Karis in the second half of the program. They opened with Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, a set of enigmatic movements (some lasting under two minutes) that vary widely in their emotional content. Unlike Karis and Curtis, Burr followed the minute nuances of the music with his body, swaying, crouching, and jumping at every turn. A telling moment came in the second movement, which concludes with a humorous staccato hiccup in the clarinet. Here, Burr gave a little chuckle (as did the audience); Karis didn’t even crack a smile.

The final piece featured all three musicians in Brahms’ Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano. Burr’s warm presence helped somewhat to soften the other two performers, who now had someone to whom they could react. The differences between the performers was still evident, though. The most vivid illustration of this was the way Burr’s body swayed even when he wasn’t playing, while Karis and Curtis remained impassive even when they were playing. It is the perennial problem with virtuosity: When music comes easily to a performer, he or she often makes it sound easy to a listener — thus taking away half the fun.

Noel Verzosa is a visiting assistant professor at California State University in Sacramento.
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