For the opening concert of the 61st season of the Chamber Arts Society, presenters went outside of the box when they selected the Jon Manasse-Jon Nakamatsu Duo.* Instead of the steady diet of top-notch string quartets, leavened by the occasional combination of piano with strings, the large Reynolds Theater audience was given a clarinet-piano duo and a lighter program than has been the norm. Autumnal Brahms served as the base for a menu of display pieces, including transcriptions, topped by a toe-tapping world premiere composed for the faithful subscribers on the Duke University Campus. Manasse is currently principal clarinetist of the American Ballet Theater Orchestra and of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra besides being active as a soloist and a chamber musician.
Brahms' Sonata in E-flat Major for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 102, No. 2 was the composer's last chamber music work, the last of four works inspired by the refined and "aristocratic" tone of pioneer clarinetist Richard Mühfield (1856-1907). While Brahms' first clarinet sonata is fiery and passionate, the second sonata is idyllic with what Melvin Berger. in Guide to Sonatas, calls " long, suave melodic line spun out by the clarinet while the piano carries on a flowing accompaniment." Manasse exhibited terrific breath control as he explored a wide palette of color and dynamics. Nakamatsu's keyboard support was cleanly articulated and balanced. In all the duo performances, the piano lid was kept completely closed. Chamber Arts audiences are used to having the piano lid fully raised with the pianist carefully reining in the volume. The concluding movement was the highlight of the performance, it being a set of variations that explores nearly every aspect the clarinet's tone.
Court clarinetist Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847) inspired Carl Maria von Weber to compose his Grand Duo Concertant in E-flat Major, J.204 (Op. 48), as an equal showpiece for both instruments to be played on tour. Before playing the piece, Manasse said that Baermann and Weber split the cost of a stage coach to be used for their tour. He quipped that the Manasse-Nakamatsu Duo were using a Jeep Cherokee. Manasse's trills were delightful and his playing of fast passages was remarkably clear. His long melancholy cantilena in the second movement was seamless and really sang. His lowest register had a gorgeous tone. Nakamatsu's playing of arpeggio passages reminded me of some of Chopin's while some robust piano solo parts hinted at Liszt.
Mendelssohn's Rondo capriccioso in E Major, Op. 14 gave Nakamatsu full scope to show off why he won the 10th Van Cliburn Competition in 1996. With the piano lid fully up, all of his overtones, color, and refined graduations of dynamic were given their full value. This was a fine tease for what his solo recitals might be like. CVNC favorably reviewed his Adams Foundation Concert in April 2002.
Stirring Spanish rhythms and familiar snatches of themes abounded in Béla Kovács' Hommage à Manuel de Falla for solo clarinet. Both players joined for the brief Pièce en form de Habanera by Ravel as transcribed for clarinet and piano by Gaston Hamelin.
Few world premieres have been as painlessly received and as warmly applauded as "Four Rags for Two Jons" by John Novacek. The composer has his feet in both the classical and the ragtime musical worlds. Manasse recalled how the duo had hounded Novacek repeatedly to compose the set, at last using the ploy "we've already scheduled them for their premiere in Durham." The duo "let their hair down," encouraging the audience to join in by clapping, etc. The music was by turns playful and sassy, bluesy and "down 'n' dirty," with episodes of stride piano. Roars of approval were rewarded with Gershwin's familiar "I Got Rhythm."
*Readers from Durham, NC, or the Triangle region may wish to know that Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu were recently named Artistic Directors of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, following in the footsteps of Nicholas Kitchen.