Dallas — Brian Thornton, the energy behind the Lev Aronson Legacy Music Festival and an Aronson protégée, gave the keynote recital on Monday, June 9, in O’Donnell Hall on the campus of Southern Methodist University. This was the first time that I experienced this venue and it turned out to be quite nice for chamber music. The steeply raked audience gave it that inescapable “lecture hall” feel that we all dreaded in undergrad school; the audience looks down on the heads of the players. The sound was excellent, so you could quickly forgive the academic ambiance.
“I am surrounded by the best musicians in the world,” he said in an after-concert conversation. “Every day, I am humbled when I realize them level of my colleagues. I try not to think about it much.”
Thornton certainly doesn’t have much to worry about in the keeping up category. His playing is so easy and natural that he transcends technique and we are only aware of the music—not how he attains it. This is a remarkable transition and it was especially apparent in his performance of Bach’s Suite No. 2 in C Major for unaccompanied cello.
These suites are the milestones that every cellist must master to be worthy of the title. Frequently they are more often listened to on recordings than performed—more like the progressive Pleyel’s études that all students suffer through along the way. Such was not the case with Thornton’s sensitive trip through the Bach.
First, his face reflected exactly what was gong on in the music, note for note. This was not the exaggerated grimaces or bodily swaying that we see in some performers. No, he knew, and we could see, exactly where every note fit into the larger structure, what led up to it and where it was going. This was not in some academic Schenkerian grid but in the natural progression of Bach’s incomparable contrapuntal skills.
Thornton also demonstrated something that is even more rare than his naturalness: He enjoyed himself and enjoyed playing the Bach for us. The Bach suite is a series of dances, after all, and they were as popular at social events as they were in concert. Regular readers of this space know that the over-seriousness of classical music is an underlined problem that many feel prevents new audiences from attending and bores the rest of us with their excruciating correctness. This is not to say that you need a silly grin, but watching a player who truly enjoys what he is doing is contagious—and we enjoy it all the more. Such was the case with Thornton’s Bach.
The program ending with Tchaikovsky’s gigantic Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. Thornton was joined by retired Dallas Symphony Concertmaster Emanuel Borok and the outstanding young concert pianist Spencer Myer. All three dug in with the inspiration of the occasion, honoring their colleague Lev Aronson. It was a performance on overdrive from beginning to the stand-up-and-cheer ending. The performance was marred by the overly bright and outspoken piano, which Myer could not make behave. Perhaps it was the fact that the open lid pointed the sound right up into the audience's face. Closing the lid would have surely helped and there were a few of us in the audience who were tempted to yell out this suggestion at one of the pauses. We didn’t.
This is a strange piece. There is a wonderful pure-Tchaikovskian first movement that is one of his most emotional and moving creations. Then, there is a long arid set of variation on a theme of remarkable banality. The question mark that ends it starts out as fun, but it quickly becomes tiresome before moving to irritating. But we are rewarded for sitting through his variation by the return of the first movement, bumped up a level to display all its grandiose splendor. The usually more stoic Borok even rose from his chair to give his down-bow super strength. This last recapitulation was a goose-bump moment, if ever there was one.
About the festival: Aronson was a longtime professor at SMU and principal cellist in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for almost two decades. His reach as a teacher permeates the cello world at the highest levels, through both his students and his students’ pupils. His story as a Nazi concentration camp Holocaust survivor is a tribute to his force of character and determination. It also is a sobering thought of how many other Lev Aronsons did not make it through those horrendous camps. We will never know how much the Nazis stole from the cultural heritage of the world.
Thornton founded and runs the event. This year is the second annual festival, and he has assembled an impressive group of cellists who will play recitals and give master classes to talented students. Another Aronson student, renowned cellist Ralph Kirshbaum will play, as will SMU professor Andres Diaz. Other cellists on the docket include Jesus Castro-Baldi (TCU), Norman Fischer (Rice), and even a genuine rock star cellist, Mike Block, of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.
Look for reviews of most of the concerts on TheaterJones in the coming days.
» Here is the remaining schedule for the second Lev Aronson Legacy Music Festival. The June 14 recital is in Caruth Auditorium; others are in O'Donnell Hall. Both venues are in the Owens Fine Art Center at SMU. The performance schedule is:
- 7 p.m. Thursday, June 12: Recital with Jesus Castro-Balbi
- 7 p.m. Friday, June 13: Norman Fischer on works of Beethoven for cello and piano
- 7 p.m. Saturday, June 14: Recital by Ralph Kirshbaum