Fort Worth — It was a struggle to get to Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum on Saturday afternoon to hear the concert presented by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth. The not-to-be-missed impressionism show was also opening at the same time in the nearby Kimbell Art Museum and lots of other events were all drawing visitors. Thus, parking was a nightmare and traffic as gridlocked as congress. It was a 15-minute trip to go just a few blocks with concert time drawing near. Fortunately, the lighting technician allowed me to hear the opening Mozart work, in its entirety, from his light booth so a last-minute entry into the hall would not be distracting. But the concert was certainly worth all of the struggle it took to get there.
Gary Levinson, the Artistic Director of the organization, has drawn on his extensive contacts in the musical world to greatly elevate the level of international reputation of some of the musicians playing on the series while still retaining the use of outstanding local musicians. Along these lines, this program featured pianist Joseph Kalichstein, who is considered to be one of the best of our generation. From his early days as a prodigy he appeared with all of the major orchestras. From his 20's through his later dedication to chamber music and teaching at Juilliard, Kalichstein remains at the top of his profession.
Levinson, in his violinist role (Senior Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony), joined Kalichstein mid-concert for a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 Op. 23. This was book-ended by performances of two piano Quartets (Mozart’s in E Minor, K. 493 and Fauré’s first Quartet in C minor, Op.15). For these, they were joined by violist Richard Young and cellist Bion Tsang. All three string players are of the same caliber as Kalichstein.
(Cellist Ronald Leonard was originally scheduled to play, but was sidelined by illness, reportedly for the first time in his long and distinguished career. Tsang ably stepped in at the last minute.)
Young was the violist in the esteemed Vermeer String Quartet from 1985 until the group disbanded in 2007. (They briefly came back together last year to play on this concert series). Tsang is on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. He took the Bronze Medal in the Ninth International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990 (the same year Deborah Voigt won in the vocal division; she will sing Salome for The Dallas Opera next week).
In many ways, the performance of Mozart’s Piano Quartet that opened the program was the best playing of the afternoon. The balance was perfect and all four artists demonstrated a firm understanding of the composer’s style. So often, Mozart is played with way too much seriousness. These four players obviously enjoyed both Mozart’s delightful music and playing with the ensemble.
The piano quartet was a recent development when Mozart wrote his. Unlike precursor works works for piano and a few string players (mostly Haydn trios), Mozart gives all four players an equal amount of music to play, so one of the joys of this performance was the care taken with the balance to bring this out. The pianist is featured a bit more in the finale, but Kalichstein kept his playing under control.
In the Beethoven sonata, Levinson was magnificent. He has recently made a superb and highly recommended recording of all of Beethoven’s sonatas with pianist Daredjan Baya Kakouberi, so these sonatas are a part of his DNA. Kalichstein was an equal partner, although he tended to overplay in the big moments.
The Fauré Piano Quartet also received a memorable performance. All four players dug in and captured the lush and opulent nature of the work. Even though it is written in a minor key, it is basically positive in nature and the players brought this out. Fauré finally writes something more melancholy in the slow movement, more in keeping with a minor key. However, this performance played with restraint, not allowing the music to descend into itself. They took the scherzo and a very fast clip, but their clean and brilliant playing made it sparkle and you never once feared it would go off the rails. The finale was approached with vigor and energy. Of particular note was the way the performers brought out Fauré’s juxtaposition of the main key of C minor and it is relative major (E flat). At the end, there was a spontaneous ovation from the energized audience who realized that they had heard something special.
Although the three pieces on the program gave all four players the chance to shine, Kalicshstein ruled the day. Mostly because it was a chance to hear a legendary pianist play, but also because he governed every moment of the performance. Yet this was not in a showy “me” way. In fact, it is difficult to put your finger on how he did it.
It wasn’t by overplaying. Although he was too loud on many occasions, exaggerating the written dynamic levels, he never covered the other players. It wasn’t because he had more to play; all three pieces distributed the music evenly. No, his supremacy was more along musical lines.
Kalichstein would bring something out of the texture that he thought was important, even at the risk of playing too loudly here and there. “Ah, isn’t that a lovely phrase,” we would think. He also drove all of the crescendi and approaches to the climaxes. It was as if only he had the road map, and once there, reveled in showing us the big moments he discovered. His style is one of studied spontaneity. This has the effect of subtly putting his stamp on the interpretation, no matter what anyone else did.
He also missed a lot of notes in the process but no one seemed to notice. In an era of impeccably perfect performances by precocious progeny, it is unusual to hear missed notes and inadvertent tone clusters. In years gone by, however, this was the case, with all of the great pianists guilty. Schnabel and Rubenstein immediately come to mind. Alfred Brendel is quoted in Harold Schonberg’s book The Great Pianists as saying: “If I miss a few notes, I don’t care as long as the musical purpose is clear. Perfection has done too much harm already in music.”
This amusing quote came to mind while marveling at Kalichstein, as well as another quote by Thor Johnson, the great American conductor, who once told me that he would rather have a big bold error than a timid right note. The buzz in the audience agreed. The atmosphere was electrified by the fact that, lucky us, we were listening to a great musician, who happened to be playing the piano, in a small enough venue that he was just a few feet away. Even if they noticed it, not a soul mentioned that he was not note-perfect.
Afterthoughts: Although the program was titled “French Romantics Plus,” the accent agiu was on the plus part. Actually, program titles are difficult to invent, and practically worthless, when the program is this varied. Perhaps something could have been made of the two very different piano quartets: one by Mozart and the other by Fauré (2 for 4 Plus?). But it is doubtful that anyone was disappointed with such a marvelously performed concert because (gasp) there wasn’t more/some from the promised French Romantics on the program.
Moment of Geek: Mozart and Beethoven were certainty not French nor was Mozart a romantic while Beethoven was the transition figure to the romantic era. Gabriel Fauré was most assuredly French and he, indeed, started out at the end of the late romantic era. But he was not a romantic, per se. His harmonic experimentations with dissonance and a revival of the old church modes soon paved the way to the impressionists (such as his pupil Ravel). His experimentations also led to the modernist revolution and even the dodecaphonic language of Schoenberg. This is apparent in his last completed work, a string quartet (1924). It is not a piece by a musically old fuddy-duddy. No, it fits right in with what was going on at the time and was much admired by the new generation of composers that popped the tonal balloon. Schoenberg’s still bewildering masterpiece, Pierrot lunaire, dates from 1912 and Stravinsky’s revolutionary Le Sacre du printemps debuted one year later.