Dallas — Last Sunday, I expected to attend a good chamber music concert at Moody Performance Hall, the third session of the Fine Arts Chamber Players’ summer series, the Basically Beethoven Festival. Much to my delight, what I got was a superlative concert, sensitively played by fine musicians—exceptional from the first note to the last. That the concert was free (as is usual for the Festival) simply added to the joy.
One of the most important functions of the Chamber Players organization is to scope out the best of today’s “Rising Stars” and offer them the chance to play a pre-concert recital. For this program, 17-year-old prodigy and Albuquerque native Ishan Loomba was tapped to perform. This choice, I’m sure, was in part based on his very impressive playing at the 2019 Junior Cliburn competition earlier this summer.
Loomba opened with one movement, the Presto, from the Beethoven Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10 No. 3. He followed that with some Chopin, selected to show his familiarity with different aspects of style. (Included were the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 63 No. 3; Prelude No. 10 in C-sharp minor, Op. 28; Prelude No. 13 in F-sharp major, Op. 28; and the “Black Key” Etude in G-flat major, Op. 10 No. 5.) And he concluded with two movements from Maurice Ravel’s challenging Sonatine (Mouvement de Menuet and Animé). Loomba’s technical abilities are quite impressive, but like many young artists these days he has a tendency to rush. Also, especially in the Ravel, he overused the sustaining pedal. As a result, some passages were blurred by both tendencies.
The main part of the concert began with an unusual programming choice. As the opener for a concert of piano and string instrument music, cellist Craig Leffer played something incongruously solo, though not unwelcome—the Allemande from the Bach Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat major. His performance felt on the fast side of acceptable for dancing, but the spirited tempo was just fine for concert use. Leffer has a good grasp of how to approach Bach’s music.
A superb group of three musicians—cellist Leffer and pianist Alex McDonald with violinist Jen Betz of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra—gave us a humdinger performance of the Beethoven Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 1 No. 1, a major work of the genre. It’s the first trio of the three that make up this work, which was written very early in Beethoven’s career. Interestingly, these trios were not the composer’s first published works, but Beethoven thought they showed him off as a major composer; hence, the unique honorific of Opus 1.
For whatever magical reasons, the three artists demonstrated a natural affinity to each other as well as to the composers of the music they played.
For the other work on the program, the three were joined by violinist Molly Baer (also with the FWSO) and violist Rachel Li McDonald (wife of Alex) to play Robert Schumann’s seminal Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44. Schumann wrote it for his wife, concert pianist Clara, who was one of the greats of her time. Perhaps a part of the outstanding success of this performance can be credited to the artistic symbiosis of another exceptional husband/wife combination.
In any event, much of the credit for the successful afternoon overall must go to pianist and director of the festival Alex McDonald, who came to the attention of the music community during the 2013 Cliburn International Piano Competition via his excellent technique and carefully forged musicianship. (Many thought that he deserved to go much further in the competition than he did.)
This is not to minimize the contributions of the other players, all equally excellent, but on Sunday, McDonald was remarkable. He functioned like a conductor as well as pianist. He established the foundation upon which the other players built their parts, creating a convincing whole. Most noticeable, perhaps, and also due to McDonald, was something small but musically critical for a clean performance--the laudable precision of the cut-offs.
There’s just one more concert to be played in the Basically Beethoven Festival, on Sunday, July 28 at 2:30—also at Moody, with more Beethoven (of course!) on the program, along with Mozart, Ravel, Debussy and Devienne. If you are going, get there early; this series has been very well attended all summer.
» The Festival will conclude on July 28 with a Rising Star duo: Anais Feller, violin, and Ella Tran, piano. The Feature Performance boasts a flute quartet led by Margaret Fischer, flute.