Fort Worth — Downsizing orchestral concerts to chamber proportions makes a lot of sense financially and gives the audience a chance to hear the individual players strut their stuff. Such was the case on Jan. 15 when the Fort Worth Symphony presented a few players and one big star, Vadym Kholodenko, who is now an Artistic Partner with the FWSO.
Kholodenko was the clear winner in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. His relationship with the FWSO started then and covers the next three years, involving chamber performances and appearances with the orchestra. He will record all of Prokofiev’s piano concerti and also go with the orchestra as soloist on its tour of Spain in 2016. This concert was part of his duties and eagerly anticipated by his many fans.
The concert, held in the Kimbell Art Museum’s Renzo Piano Pavilion, featured two works by Brahms: Clarinet Trio in A minor and his sublime Horn Trio in E-flat. There was a French sorbet in between them: Poulenc's Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano.
Principal clarinetist Victoria Luperi and principal cellist Allan Steele joined Kholodenko for the clarinet trio. Luperi impresses more and more every time I hear her play; she is meticulous about the music and how she plays it.
For this concert, she played the piece on the A clarinet, which is one tone deeper than the standard B-flat clarinet. This was a wise decision for a number of reasons. First, since the piece is in A minor, her instrument was at home in the key. Secondly, the A clarinet has a darker sound, more suited to Brahms. It is also easier to play in tune with the piano on the A instrument. Adding to the richness of her sound, she used a softer reed: perfect for nature of the music and Brahms’ musical language. In between each of the movements, she paid as close attention to her instrument as to the music. She cleaned the moisture out of her clarinet and carefully examined it for the perfect alignment of the pieces and thus the interaction of all of the keys.
Moment of Geek, and apologies in advance for this somewhat gross topic: This is not compulsive fastidiousness on her part. Even a small amount of moisture on one of the keypads can cause the instrument to not speak correctly or, worse, squeak. All that silver equipment on the clarinet enables it to play combinations of notes and trills that would not be possible without all the extensions the mechanics bring. However, if even a little bit out of alignment, the key will not do what it is supposed to do and disaster can ensue. Flutists, oboists, bassoonists and clarinetists constantly clean and work on their instruments throughout any concert. Moisture is a huge problem with any instrument that uses the human breath. It is very moist and collects in the instrument where it can cause havoc. The brass instruments have spit valves which open and leave a puddle of drool on the stage. The horns have too much plumbing for a spit valve so the players will twirl the horn around until the moisture comes out of one of the removed pieces of tubing. Again, apologies for that sidetrack into an unpleasant topic.
Steele is a bit of a mystery. He is the new principal cellist in the orchestra and we haven’t seen a lot of his playing yet. He has appeared with the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, but there have been few solo passages in orchestra concerts so far this season. In those moments, though, he has demonstrated a beautiful and rich cello sound and a sure technique. However, he can be slightly out of tune. This is a rare occurrence, mostly on ascending passages, but it is noticeable when it happens. Perhaps there are some performance jitters involved since it is usually near the beginning.
Principal oboist Jennifer Corning Lucio, principal bassoonist Kevin Hall and associate principal horn Kelly Cornell gave a marvelous performance of the Poulenc. They captured his croissant et cafe au lait Frenchness with charm and reveled in his occasional mischievousness, but also delivered sparklingly clean performances in the process. The slow movement was especially nice as they demonstrated the composer’s gift as a great songwriter.
The Brahms Horn Trio, for me, is a desert island piece. Associate principal horn Kelly Cornell and concertmaster Michael Shih joined Kholodenko for what was a fine performance, but marred by balance problems. Cornell was too loud a lot of the time. It was still lovely and secure horn playing, with beautifully shaped phrases, but noticeably above the volume level of the other two musicians. There are some plausible reasons for speculation. Perhaps it is something about the Piano Pavilion auditorium’s acoustics, the place on the stage, the raised lid on the piano projecting the sound out into the hall, or too big a bore (size of the tubing near the bell) on the horn. Cornell tried to mitigate the situation, mostly succeeding, as it went along.
Kholodenko was terrific in both of the Brahms chamber works. Right from the beginning, with his explosive first big entrance in the clarinet trio, he demanded us to sit up in our chairs and get intimately involved with the performance. That we did. He was the driving force in both trios but he never dominated the playing. He was there when needed, forthright in solo passages and supportive when the other players had their moments.
This is not an easy task for the pianist and it is never the same. Different performers and venues can drastically change what the pianist does in the close confines of a piano trio. Playing such a piece requires an amazing degree of concentration, awareness of what others are doing and innate musicianship. Only with all three in place can a pianist pull off such a fine performance. However brilliant Kholodenko’s orchestral performances with the Prokofiev concerti might be—and they are magnificent—his subtle collaborations in a chamber music setting validate his ever-growing reputation as one of the leading pianists of our day.