Alex McDonald

Review: 2016 Basically Beethoven Festival | Fine Arts Chamber Players | Moody Performance Hall

Animal Instincts

The second of Fine Arts Chamber Players' 2016 Basically Beethoven Festival focused on piano music with animal themes. Sort of.

published Friday, July 22, 2016

Photo: Alex McDonald
Alex McDonald


Dallas — The second of this summer’s four Basically Beethoven concerts packed Dallas City Performance Hall, with late arrivals struggling to find seats. A crowded concert hall is, of course, a nice problem to have, but it’s what happens when the Fine Arts Chamber Players offers free chamber performances by some of the best musicians in the Metroplex, preceded each week by a Rising Star recital featuring talented younger musicians.

This week’s Rising Star performance was by cellist Alexander Davis-Pegis, with local talent Jonathan Tsay on piano. Davis-Pegis will matriculate at Eastman School of Music in the fall, and is the son of Dallas Symphony cellist Jolyon Pegis. Davis-Pegis and Tsay performed a nearly 40-minute recital featuring the Debussy Cello Sonata and three shorter pieces. Most intriguing was Giovanni Sollima’s “Lamentatio,” which included a chanting vocal drone, a technique that Davis-Pegis executed well. Davis-Pegis has tremendous potential as a performer, and is clearly unafraid to experiment in nontraditional styles, a quality that should serve him well.

The Feature Performance for this week’s recital was made up entirely of piano music, mostly with animal themes, although sometimes that was a bit of a stretch. Two pianos, Dallas City Performance Hall’s Yamaha and a Fazioli loaned by Collora Piano, were used by three fine pianists, Catharine Lysinger, Andrey Ponochevny, and Alex McDonald, in various permutations. Beethoven’s Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein for piano four hands kicked off the recital, with Catharine Lysinger and Andrey Ponochevny the featured pianists. They played with humor and grace, providing a lively start to a fun recital.

The fun continued with Catharine Lysinger playing Aaron Copland’s Scherzo Humoresque (“The Cat and the Mouse”). This was perhaps a bit ambitious listening for the many children in the audience, but Lysinger’s playing was adept and charming.

This year’s Festival Director, Alex McDonald, joined Ponochevny for three pieces arranged for two pianos. All three were arranged by Greg Anderson, of the piano duo Anderson & Roe. The arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee was fun—this is a piece that can, evidently, survive all manner of permutations, and buzzed along at quite a pace under McDonald and Ponochevny’s nimble fingers. “Die Krähe” from Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise and “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals worked less well in two-piano arrangements, the former because Schubert lieder sans voice seem to be missing a piece, and the latter for the opposite reason— “The Swan” in its original version for cello and two-piano accompaniment has as its great asset a simple, unassuming, yet gorgeous melody, and that melody was sometimes obscured in Anderson’s more ornamented arrangement.

The most purely enjoyable offering on the program was William Bolcom’s “The Serpent’s Kiss” from his set of four rags for piano, The Garden of Eden. Alex McDonald delighted listeners with his bravura performance of this technically demanding rag that includes techniques of foot-stomping and piano-tapping.

The featured work on the program came last: McDonald’s own arrangement of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite for two pianos, six hands. Although the varied timbres and tonal colors of a full orchestra were of course absent, McDonald’s arrangement, performed by these three capable pianists, was dramatic and fiery, just as it should be. The arrangement, and the musicians’ playing, preserved the balance of the orchestration, allowing familiar melodies to fly to the forefront.


» Basically Beethoven will present two more free concerts at Dallas City Performance Hall on July 24 and 31, with Rising Star performances at 2:30 and Featured Performances at 3:00. Doors open at 2:00, but lines for the best seats will begin earlier. 

Remaining programs are:


July 24, Let’s Dance!

  • Rising Star: Jay Appaji offers a traditional Indian percussion program on mridangam. His sister Varsha, singing raga, joins him; violinist Mark Landson accompanies.
  • Feature Performance: Ensemble75, a chamber music group from Dallas, presents pieces by Bragato, Brahms, and Faure. Ensemble member Jonathan Tsay, shown with other members at this 2014 performance, performs with violinist Sercan Danis and cellist Kyeung Seu Na for the July 24 BBF audience.


July 31, Nocturnal Scenes

  • Rising Star: Pianists Jason Zhu and Jason Lin come together to play duets by Ravel, Debussy, Schubert, and Brahms.
  • Feature Performance: A string quintet (Shu Lee, violin; Kaori Yoshida, violin; Valerie Dimond, viola; Nan Zhang, cello; Shuyi Wang, cello) closes the Festival with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and Schubert’s Cello Quintet.
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Animal Instincts
The second of Fine Arts Chamber Players' 2016 Basically Beethoven Festival focused on piano music with animal themes. Sort of.
by J. Robin Coffelt

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