Concert weekend of epic proportions, class


Musicians keep audiences captive

April 19, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Apparently, some classical music types haven't gotten the word about the short attention span of today's public.

Ordinarily, a recital or chamber music program will run about two hours, counting intermission. Not last weekend. The three concerts I caught totaled nearly eight hours. In each case, the players didn't seem the slightest bit tired after exploring mounds of music; I have a feeling they could have kept on going 'til the cows came home.

The marathon listening-bout started Friday night at the Peabody Conservatory, where the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society closed its 2004-2005 season by presenting John Williams to a capacity crowd. The Australian-born Williams has been at the forefront of the guitar scene for four decades, hailed for the caliber of his musicianship as much as for the breadth of his repertoire. Both attributes were impressively displayed here.

Although Williams moved through the beginning and end of Bach's famous D minor Chaconne a little too quickly for the full weight of notes to register, the rest of the piece was superbly paced and phrased. His tonal suavity and suppleness of articulation made a potent combination that served the rest of the program equally well.

Mallorca by Isaac Albeniz was bathed in a sensual light. Williams tapped the moody beauty of Djilile, a piece by Peter Sculthorpe that revolves around an Aboriginal song. The guitarist's own, six-part From a Bird revealed a knack for fusing various influences, including folk and pop, into an appealing, unpretentious style.

An inveterate explorer of world cultures, Williams offered a hefty sampling of works from Venezuela and Paraguay, all performed in idiomatic, beguiling fashion. Atmospheric pieces by Augustin Barrios Mangore, each subtly defined and colored by the guitarist, were among the many high points.

Classical guitar playing can't get much classier than this.

Speaking of class acts, Sunday night's presentation by the Shriver Hall Concert Series at the Johns Hopkins University ranks way up there. Two eminent Russian artists, cellist Natalia Gutman and pianist Elisso Virsaladze, teamed for a recital of epic proportions and sensational music-making.

Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3 flowed with a seemingly spontaneous energy. The organic power of Gutman's burnished tone gave each theme an extra degree of expressive warmth, while Virsaladze's pianism provided a wealth of sonic sparkle.

In the splashy F major Cello Sonata by Richard Strauss, the performers tore into every grand statement, cuddled with every poetic one, and made perfect sense out of every structural element.

Rachmaninoff's G minor Sonata, one of the glories of the cello/piano repertoire, provided intense rewards. To hear Gutman carve the work's most bittersweet themes was to hear the composer's musical soul laid bare. Throughout, the cellist offered a telling mix of might and insight, without the slightest expressive exaggeration.

Virsaladze tackled even the most daunting, concerto-like passages -- Rachmaninoff wasn't about to let the cello have all the fun in this piece -- with extraordinary poise, accuracy and tonal warmth.

Instead of calling it a night after that ear- and heart-stirring sonata, the duo obliged the whooping crowd with a very big encore -- Beethoven's Variations on "See the conqu'ring hero comes" from Handel's Judas Maccabaeus.

Audiences are lucky enough to get this sparkly showpiece on a regular program, let alone as an add-on after such a meaty feast of sonatas. Hearing it delivered with such technical elan and vivid phrasing made for an even rarer experience.

The longest sit was Music in the Great Hall's season finale Sunday afternoon at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church. It stretched dangerously close to the three-hour mark, but held considerable interest.

Even the symmetrical ordering of the program proved engaging -- trio, duo, quartet, duo, trio. The duos were symmetrical, too, each with three movements (a minuet in the middle) and each written by a composer with an identical-sounding surname (Joseph Haydn and Bernhard Heiden). Cool.

The quartet at the center, Heritage Music by Jack Gallagher, presents a drama revolving around an edgy, dissonant idea that generates discursive solos by each instrument. A quiet, questioning coda lingers in the ear. The colorful, 1988 work could use trimming, but was given a strong vote of confidence by a sturdy group of regional players: Anthony Cecere (horn), Tao Chang Yu (violin), Lucasz Szyrner (cello) and Virginia Reinecke (piano).

Thomas Benjamin's Aperitif, a sweeping, ear-catching 1983 piece for violin, cello and piano, was boldly delivered. Elegant playing lifted a violin/cello duet by Haydn; vivid phrasing brought a 1939 horn/piano sonata by Heiden to life. And Mendelssohn's C minor Trio received an often stirring account.

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