Dallas — Occasionally one experiences in music a special moment where all of the intellectual reasoning, measuring, and gauging of a performance fail to adequately explain an affect. The music heard at Thursday evening’s performance at the Nasher Sculpture Center as part of their Soundings series produced more than one of those rare moments. Fertile ground for this artistic transformation was formed in the juxtaposition of the youthful vigor of six young pianists in a performance of one of the most intellectual works of the 20th century against a work known for its romantic passion performed by the legendary (and wise of age) Julliard String Quartet and Leon Fleisher. This concert was presented as a tribute to legacy of Van Cliburn.
It was easy to be pessimistic of the musical possibilities of the small, rectangular hall in the basement of the Nasher. Although visually pleasing because of the large exterior windows that frame the performance stage, the sound is dead when the room is full of audience members as it was this evening. Additional skepticism surrounded the choice of six young pianists to take turns performing movements of a demanding work for two pianos. Although these pianists (all of whom were participants in the 2013 Cliburn competition) are certainly capable of powerful individual performances, it seemed doubtful that they could create an organized rendition of a work requiring the utmost large-scale planning and interconnectedness. As for the second half, the dare-deviled, steroidal showmanship one comes to expect in any interpretation of Brahms was not feasible for an ensemble including an 85 year-old pianist. It would be understandable if some were to think there were too many obstacles to overcome in order to form a satisfying performance, but they would be wrong.
Olivier Messiaen’s 1943 masterwork, Visions de l’Amen, is wrought with harmonic and rhythmic complexities. In order to approach a work like this as a listener, one must throw out any sense of traditional harmony or voice-leading. In effect, Messiaen created his own musical language based on symmetrical patterns of notes rather on the customary scales of western music. In this new language he developed a linguistic style of sequences and repeated patterns to produce wonderful and otherworldly sounds which unravel gradually over the course of a work. The Visions are an attractive introduction to this sonic realm.
Pianists Lindsay Garritson and Alex McDonald began with the Amen de la Création (Amen of Creation) which paints an image of universal expanse and space. Garritson’s ethereal pianissississimo (marked pppp in the score) chords in the high register of the piano were easily covered by McDonald’s low, dense chorale stating the theme which serves as an important organizing point of the piece. The unfortunate positioning of the two pianos ensured the bass strings of the second piano overpowered nearly everything below a mezzo-piano played by the other instrument. Fortunately, this was the only movement in which this was a significant problem. Garritson’s beautiful dress brought back some visual memories of the Cliburn competition of last summer. However, her attentive realization of various colors and micro-dynamics revealed a deeper and maturing musicianship.
Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau (Amen of the stars, of the ringed planet) starts with an extended solo by the second piano. McDonald evoked a deep and suggestive organ sound in this noisy fracas of a dance.
Tomoki Sakata and Yekwon Sunwoo next took the stage with a sound and approach noticeably different. While their performance of Amen de l’agonie de Jésus (Amen of the Agony of Jesus) was not as well planned in dynamic intensity as one could have hoped, it did not distract from the continuing development of the overall structure. A special moment occurred toward the end of the movement where low repeated notes could represent the drops of blood from Jesus interspersed with the theme from the first movement perhaps indicating a re-creation of humanity through the suffering of the Christ. Sakata and Sunwoo breathed with each movement of harmony giving the music a gravity and space suggesting both intimate and universal scale within just a few seconds of music.
Amen du désir (Amen of Desire) gave plenty of opportunity for Andrea Lam and Amy Yang to show off a variety of orchestral effects. Again, a more Romantic temperament did not detract from the line established by the previous pianists. This character is appropriate given the more inward and psychological nature of the movement. A mix of internal emotions are heard struggling for outward manifestation.
Throughout the remainder of the performance, the six pianists were able to tie the work together and keep from becoming at any point stagnate or confused. The perceived weakness of having diverse interpretational views actually became a strength; one noticed not only a sonic but a conceptual evolution of main thematic materials as time progressed—a memorable performance.
The second half of the concert consisted of the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 of Johannes Brahms. As Leon Fleisher along with members of the Juilliard String Quartet (Joseph Lin and Ronald Copes, violins; Roger Tapping, viola; Joel Krosnick, cello) assembled on stage, it was impossible to be prepared for what followed. From nearly the first sounds, one’s attentions were simply seized and held captive until the end of the concert. In trying to describe this incredible feeling, it quickly becomes impossible to construct an appropriate vocabulary.
This was music making in its pure, concentrated form. From beginning to end, the intensity of the music never wavered from a penetrating, bright heat. A willing suspension of disbelief came about the audience as we witnessed such honesty of musicality. There was absolutely no attempt to force a single sound on any ear as a consistent and natural sense of rhetorical motion enticed the listener to enter the world created on stage. This goes beyond the thoughtful planning and intellectual fussing incorporated into much music making these days. One forgot entirely about structure and style; they were integrated into the experience instead of existing as separate features. Particularly in the final movement, a compelling and dramatic story telling led the audience instead of the usual blasting of sound as loud and fast as possible.
If the broadest definition of technique as the transference of ideas from one mind to another could be applied to this performance, true virtuosity would come close to describing the experience. The most astounding thing regarding their feat of magic was a simple fact: They did nothing more than follow the indications Brahms wrote in the score. There is an important lesson to be learned in this by the young generation of musicians.
This showcase of young talent was a fitting homage to Van Cliburn given his enthusiastic support of young musicians and strong hope in the future of music. The symbolic passing of the torch from one generation to the next heard at this performance can give us a similar optimism.