Alterations in a program can often be a disappointment for the listener, especially when there is an expectation to hear a major work. For the July 22 installment of An Appalachian Summer Festival featuring the Broyhill Chamber Music Ensemble at Appalachian State University, the opposite was the case. The previously scheduled Mendelssohn Piano Trio, billed as the highlight of the program, had to be cancelled due to the illness of one of the performers during rehearsal. This initial regret was transformed by the end of the night into a treat for the audience, with the final selection of the concert instead being a world-class performance of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne derived from his Pulcinella Suite of 1925.
The opening selection of the concert kept with the original theme of the evening, an exploration of chamber trio settings. It was only fitting that the first musical offering would be a trio sonata by the Baroque master J.S. Bach. The work selected, his Trio Sonata No. 2 in C minor S. 526, was in fact originally composed for organ, but later arranged for violin, viola and continuo. Violinist Harumi Rhodes and violist Kathryn Lockwood were an excellent duo, playing with the cohesiveness of a singular organist, as Bach originally intended. The largo and the allegro were especially indicative of their combined musical intuition. Lockwood’s sublime intonation and lyrical grace was featured in the Largo, and Rhodes masterfully accomplished the difficult task of echoing Lockwood’s lush sequences over larger phrases. The telepathic unity of violin and viola was even more prominent in the Allegro, one of Bach’s greatest organ fugues revered by later composers such as Mozart, who also set the work for strings. Lockwood and Rhodes had a detailed understanding of the systematic structure of the fugue, matching articulation and timbre every time the subject re-appeared. Even when indulging in the abundant ornamentation of sixteenth notes and sumptuous trills, each performer was conscious of when the subject should be prominent in the texture, stepping out of the melody’s way.
The initially planned theme of the concert continued with Beethoven’s String Trio in D, a work from Beethoven’s “first” or “classical” period. The composer at this time was still struggling to find the heroic voice that would firmly establish him as one of the masters in the annals of history, and this string trio provides great insight into his compositional evolution. Many of his trademarks – the combination of the comical and the profound, motivic unity throughout the course of a work, and his treatment of silence as an effective musical device – are present even in this early composition. The work’s Menuetto foreshadows how Beethoven would take this classical dance form and transform it into his defining Scherzo.
It is uncertain whether the three performers were cognizant of the trio’s historical significance; they perfectly captured the defining elements of the work in such a way that would have made Ludwig smile. Their attention to immediate dynamic changes, a trademark of Beethoven’s writing, was instantly apparent during the opening of the first movement, with Rhodes and Lockwood joined now by the fabulous cellist Inbal Segev, blossoming out of the silence with a wall of sound before energetically bursting into a vigorous dance. This Allegretto continued with the grace and clarity indicative of the classical influence in Beethoven’s early writing. However, the subtle tempo and character changes throughout were his way of entering the romantic identity he would be remembered for. These innovations were flawlessly executed with meticulous deliberateness by all three performers. Segev was especially aware of the character change at the beginning of the development, when the cello steps out of its role as an accompanist and takes center stage with the expository theme. Her interpretation was brilliantly effective, as she stole the spotlight with her richly passionate vibrato.
In the Andante, Rhode’s sultry melodic lines glided above Lockwood’s ethereal sustain and Segev’s precise and forward-driving yet graceful pizzicato. In the B section, when the seductive mystery of the opening transitions into an Epicurean stroll in the major key, all 3 musicians performed with a graceful playfulness that never obfuscated the serene atmosphere of the movement. The Menuetto, less of a string trio and more of a solo feature for the violinist, provided Rhodes with the opportunity to display her musical sensitivity and flawless technique. Her attention to the characteristic rhythmic ambiguity of Beethoven’s writing was sublimely accented by her forward-moving yet delicate interpretation of the melody. One can hear the seeds of Beethoven’s scherzo in this early Menuetto, with its gleefully chromatic and weaving ornamented melody gliding with unbridled joy. Rhodes illuminated this charm perfectly.
Following intermission, the program changes mentioned at the beginning of the concert were performed. Pianist J.Y. Song performed Debussy’s popular “Arabesque,” with unparalleled beauty, quickly dispelling the audience’s disappointment in cancellation of the Mendelssohn trio. The pentatonic cavalcade of sound flowed from her fingertips like a gentle waterfall, and the recurring descending arpeggios by stepwise motion (now so popular they have become something of a pianistic cliché) were a delight for the ears. Song, in spite of recovering from a severe stomach virus, gave one of the best performances this reviewer has ever heard of the work. Her mastery continued with another Debussy selection, his technically demanding, “Mouvement” from Images I for solo piano. The opening ostinato of compact clusters exploded within seconds into the full range of the keyboard, as Song impeccably took command of the piano’s enormous dynamic range. The terraced dynamics at the end of the work were especially indicative of her attention to dynamics, as she created a surrealistic soundscape with her delicate and dreamlike whole-tone scalar runs.
The highlight of the evening followed, with artistic director and violinist Gil Morgenstern joining Song for Stravinsky’s neo-classical masterpiece, Suite Italienne from Pulcinella. The popular melody of the Allegro Moderato was played with a fanfare-like brilliance by Morgenstern, his strings ebulliently capturing the excitement of Stravinsky’s writing. When playing the restatement of the theme, he extracted so much warmth and power from his instrument that it sounded as if a full violin section was triumphantly bowing away! The Serenata was played with equal intensity, as Morgenstern’s double-stops and Song’s powerful chords provided an exciting climax before Morgenstern serenaded the audience with an emotionally-charged lament. The jewel of the entire evening followed, with the vivacious tarantella providing an enthralling showcase for Morgenstern’s virtuosity. The perpetual, unrelenting accuracy of Morgenstern’s rapid-fire jetes and spiccato technique was world-class, as he frequently jumped with fiery passion and masterful control across the entire range of his instrument. Any frustrations over the cancellation of the Mendelssohn trio were dispelled by the end of the performance, with both performers receiving a well-deserved standing ovation.