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The charm of Tyler-Tallman Hall, upstairs at the Sloan Music Center, makes special events more special. A little walkway circles the room another flight above the stage, creating a courtyard ambiance that was perfect for the Davidson College production of Molière’s Scapin in 2008, one of the best student efforts I’ve seen in recent years. My only other experience with Tyler-Tallman was in 2005 during a Royal Shakespeare Company residency at Davidson when the great Rosemary Harris was one of the guest speakers. The Jon Nakamatsu recital, kicking off the 2012-13 Davidson College Concert Series, was the first musical event that I’d attended at Tyler-Tallman. My wife, Sue, and I were among the fortunate, since tickets to see the Van Cliburn gold medalist in a program of Rameau, Beethoven, and Schumann were all sold out. Moveable seats lined the balcony level only about halfway around the hall, so those who were discouraged by the “Sold Out” notices on the front door might have done well to persist.
Introducing Nakamatsu was Alan Black, longtime principal cellist of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and one the foremost proponents of chamber music in the Metrolina region. Black would return to join the pianist in Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 in A, but first came a rare opportunity to hear a suite of Rameau pieces composed for harpsichord, the Gavotte and Six Doubles, played on the modern keyboard. Transposed to the piano and slowed down, the Gavotte sounded meditative and soothing, shedding its usual tinkling cheerfulness. As it turned out, Nakamatsu wasn’t turning Rameau upside-down so much as creating a partition between the theme and the six variations that followed, similar to the aria and subsequent sections of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Ensuing sections reminded us more vividly of the suite’s origin on the harpsichord, the first variation playful with hints of the baroque instrument’s rigidity. Another movement had a march-like merriment with a rich Chopinesque baseline, and yet another variation actually swung. A rapid-fire treble barrage over a simple baseline was followed by a fast-paced march over a more fluid, loping bass. Nodding again toward the Goldbergs, Nakamatsu didn’t end the suite there; he circled back to the Gavotte, a little more fevered at first, but that much more relaxed at the close.
The piano sound seemed a perfect fit for the hall, and Nakamatsu’s exquisite tone was particularly telling on the Gavotte, perhaps the best of all reasons to reprise it. But the Tyler-Tallman wasn’t quite so kind to Black’s cello when he returned with the pianist to play the Beethoven sonata. Black didn’t quite match Nakamatsu’s tonal beauty – nor that of the recordings I’ve enjoyed over the years – but more disturbingly, the balance of power was disproportionately in favor of the keyboard behind him. From the first brooding moments of the opening allegro, when the cello should swell to meet the first entrance of the piano, that satisfying parity was missing. In the dialogues that followed, Black receded nicely enough into the background when Nakamatsu had the lead, but when the cellist was supposed to hold the reins, his leadership seemed under dispute. The middle movements were more successful. Black’s somewhat abrasive tone was hardly a liability in the quirky, sprightly Scherzo, and his statement of the Andante cantabile melody was gorgeous. Tone and volume thinned out noticeably in the closing Allegro vivace, but he was still more assertive and forceful here than he had been in the opening movement.
Nakamatsu returned to the stage after intermission and gave us a personable introduction to Schumann’s early Carnaval: Scènes mignonnes that described what we were about to hear and the place of these 21 vignettes in the composer’s career. Since Schumann’s music is often associated with the brooding, troubled, and unstable man he became in later years, the informative intro removed any preconceptions that may have stood in the way of grasping the thrust of this sunny, playful, and even lampooning work. As a result, the opening Préambule, marked as “Quasi maestoso,” came across more as comical bombast than a bloated longhair rant, and the ensuing Pierrot registered as innocently frolicsome instead of a maudlin, decadent portrait. Even the stormy Florestan vignette had glints of playfulness in Nakamatsu’s hands. Only the Eusebius had a rueful tone, reminiscent of Chopin’s “Les Adieux.” Prevailing tempos were quick and quicker, with occasional outbreaks of histrionics until we reached the strange conclusion that the pianist had prepared us for in his introductory remarks, the “Marche des ‘Davidsbündler’ contre les Philistins.” The three-beat march was indeed a triumph of ungainliness. At the evening’s end, the customary concert experience was somewhat flipped. Instead of a profound closing work followed by a lighter encore, the applause that showered upon the humorous Schumann cavalcade was rewarded with the Andante movement from Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata – an encore highlighted by Black’s richest, most soulful playing of the night.