With such a busy spring concert schedule in the Niagara/Hamilton region, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to attend all of the performances that promise to reward the listener (and satisfy the critic …). What a great pleasure it was to hear David Louie’s thoroughly engaging performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (cross-reference below) and then—less than three hours later—be treated to a master class of pianist-as-chamber-musician by Bernadene Blaha.
Two works comprised this program: both in A minor; both scored for piano, violin (Mark Skazinetsky) and cello (Jack Mendelsohn). Yet—in terms of musical expression and compositional devices—these trios were galaxies apart; neither composer would return to this particular instrumental form again.
The Tchaikovsky Trio was most certainly the highlight of the evening. It was clear from the first few measures of the “Pezzo elegiaco” that there was a meeting of the minds amongst the three performers that only long association both on and off the concert stage could engender. Blaha used her musical instincts and considerable technical abilities to keep the music moving steadily forward, allowing her stringed colleagues to phrase at will, secure in the knowledge that a sympathetic ear was fully engaged.
As he would throughout the first half, Skazinetsky deftly inserted a number of tasteful portamenti into the melodic mix, adding an extra bit of passion to the composer’s always personal statements. Mendelsohn surely “tossed off” his interventions with customary authority and ever-pleasing tone.
The “Tema con Variazioni“ allowed everyone their moments in the sun with very little that could be improved for another day. The balance of the piano and pizzicato accompaniment was a standout in Variation II; the “Volga Boatman” melody of III an instant delight; especially memorable was Blaha’s childlike rendering of IV with a quiet bed of drone below; the “Tempo di Valse” revealed the composer’s balletic skills, followed immediately by the more bombastic aura of Allegro moderato (the closest in style and sound to the just-written Overture to 1812); Blaha soared again in the “Tempo di Mazurka,” easily shifting between strong rhythmic lines and hints of coquettishness as required. The extended “Finale”—a bit rough and ready rather than “risoluto” in the early going—was greatly enhanced by truly full bows and a collective sense of drama. The long adieus, with a funereal feel that reinforced the impetus for this singular work: the death of Nicholas Rubinstein, vanished into niente with pin-dropping silence, that, mercifully wasn’t destroyed by lozenge wrapper, hearing-aid battery renewal time or unplugged cellphone. Sadly, this is so rare that the experience of a shared, intimate silence seemed almost new again.
If Tchaikovsky was truly worried that “I may have arranged music of a symphonic character” (yes and no—his Trio could be effectively orchestrated and much of it danced) then Ravel’s concern might be that at any given time there may not be enough virtuosos on the planet ready to do justice to his incredibly delicate and beautifully hued score.
All concerned made a valiant attempt to not only lift the notes off the page but also infuse them with subtleties of meaning before releasing them to the ear. With a few pitch vagaries and uncertain harmonics lurking in the weeds, and more excitement than Ravel likely intended (notably “Pantoum, Assez vif”) the reading never truly settled into its skin.
There’s the conundrum for music-by-the-clock rehearsal/concert schedules that, necessarily for the business side of art, run out of time before the audience has assembled. On the one hand, the opportunity of experiencing such seldom-performed repertoire is most welcome; on the other, our collective greed for another miracle of excellence is hard to ignore. JWR