Dallas — Those of us who are always complaining that we rarely hear chamber music recitals featuring instruments other than the piano, violin, or cello rejoiced on Monday evening. Dallas Chamber Music presented a pianist and violinist but an outstanding clarinetist joined them. The three artists were clarinetist John Manasse, violinist Stephanie Chase, and pianist Jon Nakamatsu. Let us hope that this is the beginning of a trend. (When is the last time a woodwind quintet toured?)
The program took place in Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium and was relatively well attended. Nakamatsu, the 1997 Cliburn winner, appears on programs in the area on a regular basis. He also appeared locally with Manasse in 2010. My review of the performance is here.
Violinist Stephanie Chase has not appeared here much. Actually, this was the first time I have heard her perform live. She first came to international notice in 1982 when she took top medals in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
On Monday’s program, she played Brahms’ Violin Sonata in G Major, one of the composer’s masterpieces and a Desert Island piece for many a classical music lover.
Her performance was oddly muted, although this might have been due to a problem with the acoustical settings in the hall for the first half (more about that later). But acoustics aside, her approach to the sonata gave the impression of a vivid photography that is now slightly faded. Also, she also played much of the piece on the low side of the pitch—not that it was enough to even be called flat, but it was enough to be noticeable. The lack of variety in her interpretation made the piece feel repetitious rather than carefully crafted. (Brahms gets the most out of his melodic materials, constantly casting them in different lights and configurations.)
Interpretive issues aside, Chase gets a magnificent sound out of her 1742 violin made by Pietro Guarneri. She plays with a bow of equal pedigree. It was made by the 19th century French luthier Dominique Peccatte. In fact, the most impressive aspect of her playing is her remarkable use of the bow. You never hear it change in the lyrical passages, creating an uninterrupted flow of sound like pouring cream out of a bottomless pitcher. This is all the more remarkable in that Peccatte’s bows are usually heavier than the norm and thus are used for performances that are more powerful.
Nakamatsu and Manasse opened the program with a rarity, Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1942). It is so early in his compositional life that it was the first piece he ever published. The sonata is a short and highly concentrated work with a grab bag of influences that are proudly displayed. There are echoes of Hindemith and Copland mixed in with jazz licks French elegance and the Caribbean mixed meters that would later serve him well in West Side Story.
The pair gave it a definitive performance, relishing its energy and creative use of both the clarinet and the piano. Nakamatsu remains relatively still on the piano bench, but Manasse uses his whole body to produce the sounds. In places, he almost dances. While all this movement is kept within bounds, he certainly adds to the enjoyment of the audience.
Bartók’s Contrasts, for all three instruments, dates from 1938 and is based on Hungarian and Romanian dance tunes that the composer loved to collect. (The piece was written for Benny Goodman.) This is another work that is not often programed so its many wonders offered a constant stream of musical surprise. Bartók revels in writing nontraditional scales and fuses some outside harmonic elements, such as jazz or the blues, with his own unusual take on traditional harmony. He gives both the clarinet and the violin a solo cadenza. He also asks the violin to retune the instrument for the last movement to create tritons instead of perfect fifths. Chase brought out a second violin so that she could avoid taking the time to change the tuning.
The three gave this a fine performance with Bartók’s rough-and-ready style front and center. None f the rough edges were smoothed and the dance rhythms were crisp and accented. Both Chase and Manasse made the most of their solo cadenza and Nakamatsu kept the whole piece rolling.
The program ended with John Novacek’s Four Rags for Two Jons. Novacek is better known locally as a pianist and is a regular with the Mimir Chamber Music series at Texas Christian University. But his skill as a composer is obviously equal to his abilities at the piano. Ragtime, or Rags, became all the rage in classical music circles with the rediscovery of Scott Joplin. In 1970, a seminal album of Joplin’s music was released to great acclaim (and boffo sales) and was later featured in the soundtrack of the 1973 film The Sting. Novacek puts his rags on steroids and mind-altering substances with terrific results.
Nakamatsu and Manasse make the most out of this concoction. This piece is really difficult to play and asks for many non-traditional effects. Both artists obviously enjoy playing the piece and love showing off all of Novacek’s considerable demands. This was a delightful romp of a performance.
Now, something about the acoustics: At intermission, there was a hubbub about the acoustics. Those familiar with Caruth noticed that the usual resonance was missing. Indeed, the first half did sound slightly withheld. Apparently, there are sound baffles that can open, for less resonance, or closed for more. Apparently, they were open for the first half and closed for the second—once some people noticed the situation. The sound markedly improved. All of this serves to point out that the concert hall designers must understand the mysteries of acoustics. A structural aspect such as these baffles can make a huge difference. Being able to adjust the acoustics to fit the concert can make the hall more versatile, but the settings need to be planned in advance and someone appointed to make sure that they are correctly set for the evening’s requirements.