Perhaps wishing for music by living composers is a lost cause in Dallas. We should be content that we even have performances of music of the 20th century. Chamber Music International's Friday concert at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium featured Bartók's descriptive Outdoor Sonata for piano dates from 1926 and Bohuslav Martinů's Three Madrigals (Duett No. 1) for Violin and Viola, H. 313 dates from 1947. It seems that music that is eligible for Medicare is what passes for contemporary these days. Well, that is modern when compared to Dvorak's glorious Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major Op. 81 B. 155, which is well over 100 years old and ended the program.
Mind you, no one is complaining about the quality of the music presented or the performances, just the dearth of music by living composers around here.
Chamber Music International always presents intriguing programs and features wonderful artists. For example, the pianist for the evening was Joyce Yang, who took the silver medal at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at the ripe old age of 19. Since then, her trajectory has been straight up. She is as unaffected as she is talented as she proved in a recent interview. The last time she appeared on a CMI concert, she was just as impressive. You can read a review of that concert (April 2011) here.
Unfortunately, the Martinů madrigals, which were on the first half of Friday's concert, were also on the same April program. While they received a very different, and much brighter, performance this time at the hands of violinist Jun Iwasaki and violist Atar Arad, it was still too early to trot them out again.
Yang opened the program with a stellar performance of a rarely heard piano work by Bartók, Outdoor Suite for Solo Piano. It was written in 1926, which is the same year he wrote his first piano concerto, and was supposedly inspired by his hearing of a performance of Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. At the time, he felt that the true nature of the piano was as a percussion instrument, and that certainly shows in this suite. It is also one of the few works by the composer that has programmatic titles.
Bartók himself never played all five movements together, but Yang made a good case for the work as a sonata-like piece. She also brought out the percussive nature right from the barbaric opening chords as she attacked the piano. Bartók called them "five fairly difficult piano pieces" and that is an understatement. Even the slow piece, The Night Music, presents the challenge of keeping various levels of texture going at the same time. Yang delivered a definitive performance of the very fast final movement, called The Chase, which left us all breathless.
The eagerly awaited big work on the program was Anton Dvorák's much-loved (and frequently programmed) Piano Quintet. Violinist Felix Olschofkan and cellist Ko Iwasaki (father of the violinist) joined Yang, Iwasaki and Atar.
This is as fine a group of players as you can find anywhere. Jun Iwasaki is the Concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony and a product of the Cleveland Institute of Music's Concertmaster program. As you would expect, he is a highly polished violinist with sure technique, brash and daring in demeanor and produces a bright sound. His father, Ko Iwasaki, is just the opposite. His sound is rich and dark and his demeanor is also dark and enigmatic, but his music-making soars.
Felix Olschofka is another talented young player who is currently on the faculty of the University of North Texas College of Music. In the moments Dvorák gives to the second violin, he greatly impressed. His sound was darker than Jun Iwasaki's, which offered the ear a nice contrast enabling you to follow the interplay between the two parts with ease.
The poor viola is the object of many musical jokes ("Did you hear about the violist who played in tune? Neither did I."). However, none of them seems very funny once you have heard Arad. His superb viola sound is almost like that of a small cello and his technique, especially his use of the bow arm, made him the standout of the performance. His solo work in both the Martinů and the Dvorák was marvelous.
While the quintet received a fine performance, a group of players assembled for a specific performance can never match the precision and single-mindedness of an established quartet that plays hundreds of concerts every year for years on end. You can easily add a pianist like Yang to such a group and, in fact, that is exactly what happens every year as the chamber music part of the Cliburn. This year it will be the Brentano Quartet doing the honors.
We are so used to hearing these works performed in this manner that you have to readjust your thinking and your ear when you hear a performance such as what CMI presented. You cannot expect that the ad-hoc quartet will all be of one mind about the music, as an established one would be, and that they will move in unison to accommodate whatever pianist is joining them. While the group had some time together to prepare, we still heard five different concepts of the piece going on all at once. This is not a criticism, mind you, but just the way it is in such circumstances. In fact, it is its own special pleasure to hear different takes on the musical material, such as when it is handed off from one player to another.
A perfect example occurred right at the beginning. The sublimely beautiful opening melody had a melancholy sound when Ko Iwasaki played it but it pulled its socks up considerably when his son repeated it on the violin. Also, Jun Iwasaki took his job as the leader very seriously and his concertmaster experience showed. If he were playing in an established quartet, he would surely not be as assertive, but here, he had to lead. The performance boiled over occasionally with its romantic burner turned up a bit high, and there were a few scattered intonation problems here and there. However overall, they all made music and delivered an enjoyable performance.
Special mention must be made of Yang's outstanding sensitivity to her role as a collaborative pianist, as opposed to her solo turn with the Bartók. This is something that cannot be taught. You have to be able to sense when you are in the background and when you are to come forward and, sometimes, that can be just a single note or motive that needs to rise out of the texture. Yang gets it and as brilliant her solo career may be, she is one of the great chamber music players of her generation.
◊ The concert repeats Saturday night at St. Barnabas Presbyterian Church in Dallas. Get more info here.