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It was the last in the current season’s Smedes Parlor Concert Series, that consistently excellent offering by Saint Mary’s School. Featured were Andrew Lowy, probably as skilled a clarinetist as anyone in the capacity audience had ever heard, and Jeremy Thompson, equally exceptional at the piano.
One could perhaps quarrel ever so slightly with the program title, “An Evening of American Music for Clarinet.” Turns out that with only one exception, the clarinet and the piano performed quite as equals, producing an evening of the most genuine chamber music. (More about the Prague connection in due course,)
Everyone has heard of the one-man band, a lone performer who can produce gee whiz sounds and generally put on a good whimsical show. Well, here’s a “two-man” combo who can sound like just about anything they choose, all the while maintaining superb artistry. Lowy, principal clarinet of the N.C. Symphony, and Thompson, a pianist of the first rank who has studied with a student of Emil Gilels, are able to create impressions of multiple instruments in concert.
They opened with a James Cohn arrangement of Gershwin’s Three Preludes. These works received virtuoso treatment by both performers, maintaining all the signature overtones of the original. Not surprisingly for an arrangement from this composer, the piano was always prominent. The slow movement, calm and even somber, could have been described as written for piano with clarinet obbligato. They continued in grand American style with Bernstein’s Sonata for clarinet and piano, some of which was marked leggiero, but actually sounded stormy on occasions.
It is hard to decide who deserved the most credit for the astonishing success of the evening’s magnum opus, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Should it be the arrangers, Larry Guy and Jan Deats? Maybe, but let’s go with the performers. Here a mere two players seemed to convey the orchestral power of this workhorse favorite. Just about every familiar refrain seemed a perfect fit for Lowy’s clarinet. Did you pine for a full orchestral sound? Thompson and Lowy delivered virtual strings and brass. Anecdotal evidence gathered at intermission suggested that this performance could be counted among the elite few in memory for musical and technical artistry.
The second half was given over to the works of living composers. Lowy came on with Three Studies for Solo Clarinet by Prague-born Karel Husa (now a resident of North Carolina). The second of these, a well-named “Poignant Song,” seemed designed to exploit the range of the clarinet. Likewise, the “Restless Machine” showed the various personalities of the instrument. In days of yore, a commentator attributed Benny Goodman’s success to “a combination of timing, musicianship and enthusiasm.” Does that combination not apply to this latter-day clarinetist?
Anyone who thought of Peter Schickele as just the alter ego of the comical P.D.Q. Bach was in for a pleasant surprise. His Elegies for Clarinet and Piano could have referred to the aforementioned “Poignant Song,” so moving and, yes, poignant they were. Liquid Ebony (2003) was the title given to three pieces by Dana Wilson. These pleasing works allowed both instruments lengthy solo runs, now somber, then meditative, now playful.
These two top-flight musicians brought to a close a likewise top-flight concert series with an encore, rewarding an enthusiastic audience with the animated and martial “Viktor’s Tale” by John Williams.