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Souvenirs of Sonoma

July 17, 2007

Another weekend in July brought yet another summer festival to a close, with the final concert on Sunday afternoon of the Green Music Festival at Sonoma State University, in Rohnert Park. Artistic Director Jeffrey Kahane balances this festival, now in its eighth year, with a blend of regularly returning performers and new guest artists. For last weekend's final chamber music event, Kahane himself took the bench at the piano, alongside festival favorites Chee-Yun (on violin), Jon Kimura Parker (piano), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), and Aloysia Friedmann (viola).
On the program were three large works: Mozart's E-flat Major Piano Quartet (K. 493); Samuel Barber's Souvenirs, for piano four hands (Op. 28); and Brahms' Piano Trio in B Major (Op. 8).

The concert opened with an elegant flourish, with Parker and the string players joining forces for Mozart's second piano quartet, one of only two works that he wrote in that genre. The first movement was poised, with remarkable ensemble work between Friedmann and Parker. Friedmann handled those awkward moments where the viola is required to double the left hand of the piano, smack in the middle of the texture, with grace (and, most commendably, audibility). The Larghetto was also expertly rendered. These slow movements in Mozart's chamber music can often come across as — Mozart lovers, please forgive me — mind-numbingly dull.

Not on Sunday, however. The quartet straddled a delicate line between balanced grace and improvisatory flourish, so that the piece breathed easily, yet remained unpredictable enough to accentuate Mozart's drollery without obscuring the movement's sophisticated design. The final movement, too, was excellent. The group chose a sensible tempo that allowed Parker's flourishes to be impressive without descending into chaotic hurriedness.

Their emphasis on the movement's funky ascending harmonic minor scales and goofy ornamentation pointed out the exoticist strain, popular in Classical Vienna (think of Beethoven's "Turkish" music, for instance) and in great abundance here. The string playing suffered from a bit of intonation difficulty in this final movement, especially from Chee-Yun in those awkward "Eastern" passages, yet the obvious delight of the players made up for such small technical shortcomings.
Dancing Out of the Past
Barber's Souvenirs is well-known in the orchestral repertoire, but is rarely heard in its original piano four-hands arrangement. The piece consists of modernized popular dances composed as a nostalgic reminiscence of early 20th-century popular culture. Its treatments of dances such as the waltz, the two-step, and the tango bring to mind a towering genius contemporary with Barber: Igor Stravinsky.

Barber's arrangements are Stravinskian in their tendency to stand with one foot in the past and the other planted firmly in a modernist aural soundscape. The difference between these composers lies in the fact that Barber keeps his weight shifted heavily onto the left foot; his Souvenirs encapsulate a present that is fondly remembering the recent past, rather than an unhappy present building awkwardly (if brilliantly) on past models.

In other words, what Barber here constructs is elegant, modern parlor music. It was a joy to see and hear Parker and Kahane collaborate in such lighthearted activity. The program notes to Sunday's concert indicated that Barber wrote the piece to play, with his friend Charles Turner, at cocktail parties. Parker and Kahane looked the part, resembling a couple of old pals goofing around at the piano at an informal event. Their easy demeanor set the audience in a good mood, and pleasant chuckling dotted moments throughout the performance.

Make no mistake about it, however: Despite its friendly atmosphere, the piece is no teddy bear, and the pianists polished off the ferociously difficult two-step and the concluding galop with impressive facility and technical precision.
Troublesome Outing for Cellist
In sharp contrast with the élan of the first half of the concert, the program's last section suffered serious shortcomings. Leave it to Brahms, master of awkward and unwieldy chamber music, to yoke the performers with his massive B-Major Piano Trio, through which they stumbled around uncomfortably from start to finish. Particularly disappointing here was Weilerstein's contribution. For all the elegance that she exuded in the Mozart, here she seemed to be striving to produce the ugliest sounds possible out of her cello.

She squawked and squeaked her way around Brahms' unforgivingly high writing in the first movement, and scraped so furiously at the finale that I was led to believe that some well-meaning coach had cautioned her against letting the last movement's important lines be buried by the high violin writing and the piano's thick chordal textures. If that was the case, then some advice to Weilerstein: We can hear you. Whether it was fear of being drowned out or just a youthful (Weilerstein is only 25) attempt at playing with dramatic emotional poignancy, the cello tone color marred the ensemble blend to such an extent that the experience was difficult to sit through.

Bright spots did peek out, however. The harshness from the bass line actually helped the atmosphere of the Scherzo, especially in the wonderfully grotesque musettelike accompaniment figures of the outer sections. In the trio section of this movement, Weilerstein produced rich, beautiful tones.

Kahane's playing was, as always, beautifully polished, particularly in the chorale sections of the Adagio movement, which he rendered with a full-textured balance rarely heard among pianists. Most players tend to emphasize the top and bottom of those massive Brahmsian chords, ignoring the subtle contrapuntal interplay of the inner voices, but Kahane weighted the sonorities just right. Chee-Yun presided over the entire ensemble with a calm poise that was a nice antidote to some of the more frantic problems critiqued above.

Despite these merits, the performance as a whole didn't quite hang together. The Brahms trio made an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise excellent concert. Even these seasoned professionals would be well advised to stay away from such gigantic, awkward works unless they start to play together more frequently than at a yearly festival. Successful presentation of such pieces requires a cohesive working methodology and the type of high comfort level that can typically be achieved only by well-established ensembles. Next time, more Mozart, or perhaps a little Beethoven?

Jonathan Rhodes Lee studied harpsichord in New York, San Francisco, and the Netherlands. He is the author of Film Music in the Sound Era  and he currently serves as Assistant Professsor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.