Last Thursday night, David Lipscomb University provided Nashville culture pigs with a splendid hors d’oeuvre for this coming weekend’s feast of Beethoven. Ward Lecture Auditorium was the location for a program of works by Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart performed by the universally acclaimed fortepianist Malcolm Bilson. To those who have purchased any of the recordings of Mozart’s piano concerti involving Bilson and John Elliot Gardiner, you can scan the next few paragraphs. I have little to add to the high esteem in which you already hold Bilson’s art. In fact, it is extremely difficult to sound like a critical maven when it should simply be sufficient to report: “This was great stuff.”
At a Nashville concert by an artist of Bilson’s stature, it is almost beyond belief to hear anything that reaches the level of performance encountered on recordings. Legions of brand namesItzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman are only the two worst examples I can recallhave trooped through Music City, collected fat checks, and fired off the provincial performance. Bilson gave his Ward Auditorium audience the Carnegie Hall show: He made clean and powerful attacks without sounding like he was banging away; soft notes had a sure touch; phrasing had an uncommon grace; passagework was cleanly articulated; and fast passages were taken at top speed with dead-on accuracyTerry Labonte has nothing on Malcolm Bilson.
If I were to hazard any criticism of Bilson’s work at Ward, it would be in the matter of slow movements: His were on the very fast side. Largos loped into andantes, and andantes accelerated into allegros. To my more modern ears, this robbed many of the slow passages of some of their poetry, but this tempo inflation is very much a part of the “original instruments” reforms; at times, it was even called for by Ward Auditorium’s dry acoustic.
I found greatest pleasure in the one piece I was most prepared to ignore. Haydn’s piano sonatas can induce catatonia in the unprepared, but, bless him, Bilson chose one of the jolliest in the set, the Sonata in G Major (Hob. XVI:39). If I had trouble throughout the concert with Bilson’s attitude toward the tempo modifier con brio, I still found the great good humor of the opening allegro con brio the kind of engaging music-making that earned Haydn the sobriquet “Papa.” I might have preferred a bit more sostenuto feel in the middle-movement adagio, but the Scarlatti-esque finale was marked by Bilson’s superb passagework and dramatic tension between loud and soft passages.
Both of the Beethoven sonatas, the op. 10/3 and op. 7, were exacting performances. Top speed, top accuracy, and, especially in the adagio of the op. 10/3, a superior approach to the phrase lifted Bilson’s Beethoven far above the ordinary. In the big moments, I often found myself wishing for the visceral tone quality of a modern concert grand, but this was more than compensated for by Bilson’s deeply felt playingthe finer emotional moments came across loud and clear. Once again, I would have liked more bravado in the brio passages, but I was more than content with a performance of the op. 7 that had such chilling misterioso episodes, such perfect passagework, and so affecting a largo con gran espressione.
If I have not yet mentioned Mozart, very much a Bilson specialty, it’s only because his was the slightest work on the programnot bad in any way, just slight. This piece gave Bilson a chance at grace rather than drama. Even the fast, fast, FAST tempi of the first movement came off with flawless virtuosity, and the closing allegretto was another of the evening’s studies in the perfection of dynamic contrast.
What Bilson thought of the performance space is another matter, however. Most of last year’s concerts in the Artist Series at David Lipscomb did not require such a live acoustic, but on this night, there were many moments when the performance needed that room-ringing power of a modern instrument. The worst acoustic problem of the evening, though, was caused by the seating. I didn’t notice it so much with the smaller crowds last season, but when the rows of theater seats are fully loaded, the slightest motion leads to the undeniable conclusion that the audience is suffering from chronic flatulence. I personally felt as squeaky as Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. A plea to some rich David Lipscomb alum: This series needs a performance space as good as its artists. Give!
Color and drama
Monday was world-premiere night at the Blair Recital Hall. Yes, there were some standard itemsquartets by Brahms and Haydnbut most of the audience came to hear the Blair String Quartet in the premiere of Michael Kurek’s String Quartet No. 2. All of my previous experience with Kurek’s music came a couple of seasons back with a performance of a newly reworked harp concerto by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. I thought then that Kurek’s sense of orchestral color and his appeal to the emotions lent his music a very cinematic quality. How interesting to open the program notes the other night and find Kurek talking about his music in terms of “emotional scenarios” and “dramatic shape.”
Kurek certainly has a sure sense of what he is about. The opening of the one-movement work had a high melody over tremolo strings that broke into an episode featuring Blair’s John Kochanowski in a meaty and impassioned viola part. The image of tears staining a face pressed to the window of a departing train kept fleeting through my imagination. Indeed, the use of (I think) clots of triplets in the lower parts extended the train motif through much of the piece. The farewell scene developed into a section that served as a kind of scherzo for the single-movement quartet that ushered in the emotional pay dirt. This misterioso episode was one of the work’s most arresting features, at one point almost quoting the famous Ravel quartet. My only quibble here were the pizzicati episodes, which didn’t seem to go well with the underlying flow of emotion.
I have mentioned Ravel as an influence on this work, but the real locus classicus here is the work of Janacek. The abrupt stops and starts, the juxtaposition of very loud and soft passages, the great emotional tension are all hallmarks of both Janacek quartets. Kurek’s work is in no way derivative, however, because he quite clearly has his own “emotional scenario.”
Of course, the members of the Blair String Quartet were brilliant in their service to this music. I have already mentioned Kochanowski’s viola playing, but each member deserves “a yell” for his or her contributions. Grace Mihi Bahng provided the rhythmic underpinning that never failed in its support, and violinists Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard provided the right punch for the emotional outbursts. About the only problem I encountered in this listening was a problem with some of Teal’s long held notes toward the end. As his bow stroke changed direction, he had a noticeable tendency to go off pitch, and he had trouble fading to inaudibility without the last few seconds sounding scratchy.
I close noting with some regret that Monday was so rich a night in concert fare. Corsican liturgical chant and a first-class examination of the influence of American composer Henry Cowell were just two of the several other opportunities that concert-goers had for their delectation. In the weeks ahead, folks, choices at the arts trough become even more difficult.
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