Chamber Music Review

Music for a Great Space: Homecoming Spirit Pervades the Season Opener

September 7, 2007 - Greensboro, NC:

It was like old home week at Christ United Methodist Church for the opening concert of the Music for a Great Space series. The guest pianist was Stuart Malina, former music director of the Greensboro Symphony and currently music director of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania, along with violinist Alexander Kerr. Also among his credits, Malina helped director/choreographer Twyla Tharp create the musical “Movin' Out” and, in June 2003, shared a coveted TONY Award with Billy Joel for the show's orchestration. Malina commented his musical and personal relationship with Kerr dated back to their student days at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and past their joint tenures with the Charleston Symphony (SC) where Malina was assistant conductor and Kerr was concertmaster. Kerr has had a rapid ascent in the musical world, having moved from Charleston to become concertmaster to the Cincinnati Symphony, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, and now principal guest concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony and the Chairman of the strings department of the Indiana University School of Music.

Malina has kept his keyboard chops well honed. Many of his fans in the audience will recall his direction from the keyboard of Gershwin’s American in Paris with the GSO. The one flaw in the first half of this well-planned concert was the failure to raise the lid of the piano for which Malina apologized after intermission. This muffled some of the overtones. Otherwise, the piano’s dynamics were expertly balanced and complex portions were kept clear — no mean feat in the church’s too-resonant acoustics.

As one might expect from a career as a concertmaster with major orchestras, there were no deficiencies to be found in Kerr’s technical armory or musical depth in a program that gave him ample material to display his strengths. He produced a full, warm, and even violin tone, and he played the fastest passages with remarkable clarity. His intonation was precise no matter how sudden the change in bowing or fingering or how high the note. His quietest playing projected easily into the hall.

The music of Leos Janácek gets too little exposure in this state. His surviving Sonata in A-flat minor, JW VII/7 was begun in 1914 when the composer was sixty and the Russian army was expected in his native Moravia. It was completed in 1921 after many discards, re-writes and tweakings. A fifth movement was thrown out; the concluding Adagio was originally the second movement. Only the soulful Ballada remains mostly unchanged with only its final chord being changed from C sharp major to minor. This slow rondo has some of Janácek’s longest flowing melodies and the pp ending is exquisite. The scherzo-like third movement is more characteristic with its short and scurrying interjections from the violin over a repetitive folk-like tune in the keyboard part.

Kerr commented from the stage that his father had played a role in the commissioning of Subito by Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1987) as a test piece for the 1994 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Indiana. He said the title meant “sudden changes” and its roughly five minute span certainly fully lived up to its name! The piece transcends its role for evaluating violin technique. It is packed with bold gestures and striking effects that juxtapose rapid changes in bowing, fingering, and phrasing along with a myriad of color and tone effects.

The Sonata in G minor was the last work of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), and it belies his despair over WWI and his suffering from cancer. The composer’s exploitation of complex colors and harmonies as well as rhythmic ambiguities is among the work’s pleasures. It is frequently programmed and played well in the region as it was on this occasion. The performance of the second movement, Intermède: Fantastique et léger, was outstanding.

Malina recounted violinist Jascha Heifetz's penchant for transcribing music he liked for the violin. George Gershwin (1898-1937) was a favorite and the violinist made many transcriptions, among them the Three Preludes, Porgy and Bess excerpts, and Malina and Kerr’s selection, American in Paris. Malina said Heifetz condensed the 14 minute work down to about five minutes but it retains the promenade, blues, and Charleston. The unique and extinct sound of circa 1920s Parisian taxicabs is suggested! Heifetz could play both parts and Malina said he must have been a fine pianist since there are some very tricky parts for the keyboard.

The concert ended with a gorgeous and beautifully balanced performance of the First Piano Quartet in C minor by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Malina and Kerr were joined by violist Scott Rawls and cellist Beth Vanderborgh, superb principal players of the Greensboro Symphony, who joined the orchestra during Malina’s tenure. The balance between piano and strings during the opening bars is tricky and often short of ideal in halls more congenial to the combination, so the clarity of parts on this occasion was miraculous and a tribute to Malina’s skill as a chamber musician. Overtones and piano colors were clearer because the lid was raised about six inches. Fauré gives each string player numerous passages to display a ripe, full sound. The interpretation was stylish and the phrasing was a model of how this work should be done. Bravo! The combination of Malina and Kerr ought to be heard more often throughout our state.