Dallas — When a review begins with a line like “Such-and-such’s performance wasn’t perfect,” you know that such-and-such played so well that the so-and-so writing the review is having a tough time coming up with anything negative to say about it. This is one of those times.
Clara-Jumi Kang’s performance on Friday night was not perfect. Maybe five or six notes were a little off, and that’s five or six out of the I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of notes in the four sonatas she and pianist Chih-Yi Chen prepared for presentation at Dallas City Performance Hall: four imposing works by Debussy, Grieg, Ysaÿe, and Franck, presented as the third concert of Chamber Music International’s 30th season.
Programming Debussy’s mercurial G minor Violin Sonata first was a good idea. It’s full of indescribably delicate moments, while the Grieg Sonata No. 3 is heavier, and somewhat more predictable if you’ve listened to any of Grieg’s work outside of Peer Gynt. Starting with the Debussy eased the audience into the concert, and that was very kind of Kang—she ceaselessly demonstrated intense concentration, and her entire manner in performance would seem to work well for loud passages but not so well on passages that required more delicacy. On the contrary, however, the intensity of her approach is precisely what made both the softer and the louder passages work so well for her. Whatever the volume, her bow appeared hardly to touch the string, and the sound either filled the hall or was barely there—it’s almost as though we were witness to the violin equivalent of excellent lip-syncing.
But this was no stunt. There was plenty of evidence that this was the real thing, not least Chen’s performance as the other half of the three duo-sonatas (Debussy, Grieg and Franck). Chen was all over the place, which was exactly what the music required of her. No matter how softly she played, we heard every note, and no matter how loudly she played, we heard every note that Kang was playing at the same time. It’s remarkable, especially at certain times during the Grieg, that so many details from both performers were audibly exactly where they belonged.
It was another case of Dallas City Performance Hall’s proving that it can handle just about anything. The two performers ran the various gamut of emotions, dynamics, and competitive interaction, and the hall delivered every bit of that to the audience. I was worried: that huge stage, and that tiny little eight-foot grand piano and three ladies, counting the page turner—it looked like we were in for a scary night. There were moments where you would swear the performers couldn’t get any quieter, and if they were to, you wouldn’t be able to hear them—but they did, and we could. The hall gave us every note.
The second half of the program began with the evening’s wild card, the Solo Violin Sonata No. 3 by Belgian composer Eugène Ysaÿe. This was a solo violin sonata, and that’s solo as in “no pianist to fall back on.” Just Kang there on the stage, playing the heck out of a piece that never lets up. If you don’t know Ysaÿe—and who does?—think of Jean Sibelius tied up back-to-back with Alexander Scriabin and forced to sit in a bathtub full of ice-cold water. Not that it’s unpleasant in the least; it’s just very intense, and Kang was every bit its equal.
The comparatively well-known Sonata in A Major by César Franck closed the concert, and Kang and Chen gave us the familiar parts—such as that curious opening that walks a beautiful little tightrope between stability and unease, or the gorgeous imitation at the start of the last movement—in what seemed to be an entirely new way. And their rendition of the parts that no one remembers—the second and third movements, namely—had some of us heading for iTunes after the concert to buy a recording.
Kang appeared to have completely internalized the entire performance for the evening, even the Ysaÿe, crazy workout though it may be, and even the encore, an arrangement of The Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo. This internalization may have contributed to the serious facial expression she wore for almost the entire evening. But it’s more likely that her facial and physical expression simply convey her sense of responsibility, both to the music and to the audience, to deliver that music as it occurs to her—a responsibility she seems to feel acutely.
She did crack, though, a couple of times: I’m pretty sure that, during some key moments in the Franck Sonata, she showed a trace of a grin—and it was hard to resist grinning right along with her.