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Make a mental note of his name — Alexander Fiterstein— because you will be hearing him often and hearing about him even more! This new artist-faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts played his Winston-Salem debut recital in Watson Hall on the UNCSA campus, accompanied by the excellent Steven Beck on the piano and joined by spouse Meira Silverstein, violin. The varied program illuminated the many facets of the clarinet and was bookended by two pillars of the repertory, Claude Debussy's Rhapsody and Johannes Brahms' Second Sonata.
The Debussy starts with the indication in the score, "dreamily slow," and the piano alone intones three octaves of F's and a slow descending triplet figure about which the clarinet weaves a melody while the piano plays some wonderful parallel "Debussy-esque" harmonies just above the threshold of our dreamy state. Those who are unfamiliar with this short (nine minutes) piece or others who balk at Debussy should become acquainted with it. Indeed, at its end, I wondered why it wasn't programmed last, so fulfilling were the closing moments.
But as an introduction to Fiterstein, the Rhapsody worked beautifully. Whereas most woodwind instruments, including the clarinet, seem to have different timbers (think vowel sounds) for each pitch or register of the instrument, Fiterstein had such control of his instrument that there was a smooth evenness to the tone quality, from one extremity to the other. And his control of dynamics is phenomenal. Most of the Debussy he couched in the "hum" to "sing sweetly" range, saving the loud or purposefully strident voice for later in the show. But by the end of the Debussy, I was aware that control of the tone and dynamics is a hallmark of Fiterstein.
A word about Steven Beck, the pianist on this and most of the other pieces on the program: he is a fine pianist, subtle, sensitive and keenly attuned to his partner on the clarinet. In both the Debussy and Brahms works, the piano is an integral part of the composition – here starting the phrase, there finishing it – sometimes casting a lingering second glance at it. Only in the Suite by Darius Milhaud (see below) was the balance off; it could have been remedied simply by closing the piano lid to its half-way position.
An early work of UNCSA composer Lawrence Dillon (b.1959), "Three Inventions" (1985), for solo clarinet, further extended our appreciation of the subtleties of the soloist. The first movement, Prelude, began with a repeated six-note motif in a fairly regular rhythm with a skip to the fifth and sixth notes. Eventually this minimalistic approach took in other notes in a serialist fashion. The third movement is intriguingly entitled "Fugue"! — and I was able to discern three of the four parts, a tour de force for composer and performer as well as the listener!
Unknown to most of the audience, including a handful of the region's clarinet literati, the Sonata by Polish composer and close friend and neighbor of Dmitri Shostakovich, Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96), is a dark and brooding work with moments of high drama, romantic lyricism and tongue-in-cheek humor (of the OOM-pa-pa-pa variety). It also included long solos for each instrument and used extreme dynamic contrasts. It was here that one discovered subtle hints of vibrato in the clarinet and loud strident Klezmer moments. The closing Adagio (!) includes a long recitativo for solo piano. I would like to hear this work again or indeed any of the 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, and half dozen operas Weinberg penned while living in Moscow!
After intermission, we were introduced to Fiterstein's spouse, violinist Meira Silverstein, who joined her husband and Beck in the playful Suite by French composer, Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). A prolific composer who was influenced by American jazz and by Brazilian sambas, Milhaud taught for many years at Mills College in California and counted among his students Burt Bacharach, Dave Brubeck, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich.
This Suite is a loose collection of four short pieces — an Overture, Divertissement (diversion), "Jeu" ("game") and an Introduction and finale. The overture toyed with regular mixed rhythms (3 + 3 + 2), the "game" was for violin and clarinet alone, and the whole ended in a sort of gigue. Silverstein played well and with wit but was occasionally overpowered by the piano.
The Brahms Sonata in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2, for clarinet and piano is also played by violists, as Brahms himself suggested. This performance was outstanding, with the clarinet and piano melding in gentle drama of the most pleasant sort, far from the sturm und drang of much of Brahms' writing. Fiterstein and Beck obviously have played this work together frequently as they anticipated each other's most subtle details of phrasing and timing. My favorite passages occurred in the final Andante con moto, a set of six variations on a theme: moving from syncopations to sextuplets and faster, a syncopated adagio, a rapid minor section, the work ended in a triumphant major variation, a fitting conclusion for a spell-binding recital.
For more on Fiterstein, including forthcoming concerts all over this continent, click here www.fiterstein.com.