Dallas — Concert names are always of interest because they give you an idea of the organizing idea behind a program. The Dallas Chamber Music presentation on Monday at Southern Methodist University promises a lot—nothing less than the “Music of the Spheres.”
As it turns out, that is the name of the group performing the concert rather than a description of the music. It is still a lofty name. A release from the group states this about its mission and founding:
“Inspired by the Neo-Platonic academies of 16th and 17th-century Italy, which combined discourse with musical presentations, the Music of the Spheres Society was founded in 2001 by its artistic director Stephanie Chase and also its group’s co-founder Ann Ellsworth.”
The group is a collective of artists specializing in contemporary works as well as performances on historically correct instruments. The group assembles what is required for any particular concert. For their Dallas appearance, violinist Chase will appear with clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu.
“We will be playing a wide variety of music,” says Nakamatsu, who won the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. “We open with Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and then play a sonata for violin and piano, Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78. Then, all three of us will play Béla Bartók’s Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, and end with John Novacek’s Four Rags for Two Jons. He wrote that for Jon and I to play, thus the name.”
The two Jons, Nakamatsu and Manasse, tour as a duo. In 2010 they played Novacek’s rags on a Cliburn Concerts performance (my review is here).
“There is a lot of good music for clarinet and piano,” Nakamatsu says, “but it is a little harder to sell a recital with a wind player than if I was touring with a violinist or cellist. You rarely hear wind players appearing as a soloist with symphony orchestras either. There is some great music for them. The Mozart concerto is a masterpiece.”
As to this program, Nakamatsu emphasized the difference in the selections.
‘The Bernstein is very short, but every note is perfect. It is highly concentrated musically. The Bartók is exceptionally challenging to play. The Brahms sonata is a favorite, familiar to almost everyone, and the Novacek rags are always well received.”
Nakamatsu divides his time between concerti appearances, solo recitals and collaborative appearances like this one. The importance of collaborative pianists, as opposed to what we used to call accompanists, is a major shift. The importance of the second player on the stage was always appreciated by the player, but hardly noticed by the audience unless the pianist was also famous as a soloist. These days, the collaborative pianists are finally getting their due. There are even competitions for them and major piano competitions, such as the Cliburn, require an appearance with a string quartet.
Nakamatsu is clear about the importance for a soloist to occasionally work in a collaborative situation.
“As to the merits of collaborative versus soloist, a finished artist can’t can have one without the other,” he says. “Actually, a concerto is collaborative in a big way. I learned how to play concerti by playing trios. Playing with a clarinetist taught me how to breathe, which is something you don’t have to do as a pianist, but it is a very important lesson for a musician to learn.”
Certainly, the piano music for ensemble playing is just as difficult as for solo work. A sonata implies two equals and almost all of them are written that way. Many sonatas and piano trios through quintets have devilish piano parts, such as the Bartók work on this program. But does one role have an advantage over the other?
“One big thing is you don’t have to memorized chamber music but you have to do so for a concerto,” he adds.
You can hear him—with the score on the piano music stand—put his collaborative skill to good use Monday at Caruth Auditorium.