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The pews of the Asheville Unitarian Universalist Church were packed with attentive concert goers on this Friday evening. The Asheville Chamber Music Series has hosted concerts in this space for the last few years, and the venue has proven to be a wonderful setting for the various performers the Series has hosted. On this particular evening, cellist Gary Hoffman and pianist Cecile Licad performed for an eager crowd of chamber music aficionados. Both Hoffman and Licad are internationally renowned musicians, and the audience was fortunate to have musicians of such a high caliber grace the beautiful but modest sanctuary of AUUC.
The concert opened with Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3, Op. 69. This work proved to be an excellent showcase for both musicians. Hoffman captured the expansive six measure cello solo with all the bravura one would expect of a soloist. When joined by Licad's soft and delicate countermelody, something became immediately apparent – both artists, while consummate solo performers, were also two keen listeners who had developed an almost telepathic musical connection. Both Hoffman and Licad exhibited synchronized precision throughout all three movements and captured the stormy and relentless rhythms of the sonata with a passionate intensity that would have made Beethoven proud. The Allegro vivace portion of the third movement was especially riveting, with Hoffman's vigorous bowing matching the furious yet precise articulation of Licad's key strokes.
Following the Beethoven, Hoffman performed the third Bach Cello Suite (BWV 1009). Hoffman seemed perturbed by his instrument's finicky intonation, the result of an exceptionally frigid December evening in the mountains. The prelude was performed somewhat mechanically, with the final cadences feeling especially rushed. Hoffman really began to shine by the third movement (Courante). Hoffman performed the long, horizontally oriented melodies and litany of sequences with soaring precision. The cellist's rendition of the Sarabande was especially passionate. Hoffman's quadruple stop technique transcended the physical limitations of the cello, his instrument's C and G string letting out a magnificent growl, while his D and A strings sweetly serenaded the audience.
At certain points, Hoffman's instrument ceased to sound like a cello and became an angelic voice in the room. By the suite's final movement (Gigue), Hoffman had completely settled into his surroundings. The compound melodies in this movement were separated with polyphonic clarity, and his playful flexibility with the lilting gigue rhythm did not detract from the movement's rhythmic momentum. In fact, Hoffman's rhapsodic approach emphasized the Gigue's propulsion, superbly capturing the vivacity of the Baroque dance.
Following intermission, Licad launched into a captivating performance of "Alborada del Gracioso" from Ravel's Miroirs. The work is a kaleidoscope of musical affects, and Licad captured each mood with exceptional attention to detail. Licad maintained the syncopated 6/8 ostinati throughout the movement with a rhythmic vigor similar to her performance of the Beethoven earlier in the night. Her rendition of the cascading pentatonic runs on the second half of the movement was executed with the gracefulness of a harpist. It is a joy and a privilege to hear a pianist who can evoke so many textures and timbres from a single piano. One could see how immersed Licad was in her performance, her dramatic gestures reinforcing the wide variety of articulations and colors she extracted from the piano.
The Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata, No. 19 was the gem of the evening. Hoffman and Licad were of one mind in the first movement, displaying tight rhythmic accuracy without sounding metronomic. Both performers engaged in a symbiotic rubato during the Lento section, never losing the underlying pulse. Almost miraculously, both artists created the illusion of time suspended, without abandoning their respective rhythmic duties. Licad's dynamic range was enormous. Her softs were like whispers, and her execution of Rachmaninoff's notoriously stacked chords shook like thunder. Hoffman displayed his most tender voice of the evening on the cello, gliding across the strings with a beautifully weeping sound. The final movement was especially mesmerizing, as Licad deftly navigated the melody amidst the oscillating major and minor harmonies. Her graceful touch on the piano shimmered besides Hoffman's heartfelt rendition of the theme.
Following a standing ovation, Hoffman and Licad gave two encore performances. The first was the second movement of Prokofiev's Cello Sonata No. 5. The almost jocund march-like rhythm and conjunct melody of this selection provided a refreshing contrast to the sweeping, almost symphonic grandeur of the Rachmaninoff. The evening's performance concluded with a meditative rendition of the third movement from Chopin's Cello Sonata in G minor.