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On the heels of a dazzling performance of Saint-Saëns' "Havanaise" a little over a week before, NC Symphony Associate Concertmaster Jeff Thayer, a product of Juilliard's pre-College division, the Eastman School of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music whose talent is far greater than his years, joined NCS Principal Cellist Bonnie Thron on February 25 in Meredith's Carswell Recital Hall for an impressive evening of string duos. This was the second of a series of performances that will take the artists to Durham, Greensboro and beyond; for details, see our calendar.
It's a bit old fashioned, offering an evening of duos, but these outstanding players have chosen their material wisely. The program began with a substantial, four-movement Duet (Op. 5, No. 3) by James Cervetto (1749-1837), a celebrated cellist in his own time and a product of a musical family of considerable renown. It is more than just a warm-up piece, for it is far more appealing than the typical opening group in, say, vocal offerings that encompass music from several periods, although it is probably a better piece to play than to listen to repeatedly. The opening Allegro is pleasant enough, but the slow movement (an Andante) doesn't seem to go anywhere. That said, the Minuet is charming, and the players threw themselves into the finale with great enthusiasm. Indeed, it was the commitment of Thayer and Thron-and their evident technical abilities and artistic commitment-that made this reading memorable while concurrently providing nonstop delight to the small number of fellow artists and connoisseurs who turned out to hear them. Programs like this are rare in our part of the forest, so it was distressing (to this longtime observer of the scene, at least) that the recital was not better attended.
There were no program notes-they aren't routinely provided at "guest" recitals at our institutions of higher learning, which thus routinely miss the opportunity to augment "educational" aspects of the concerts they present on their stages-but Thayer spoke briefly before the concert's second work, addressing it and the evening's finale and placing them nicely into context. The two compositions in question are among the greatest string duos in the literature and must rank among the finest written in the 20th century. Savvy readers will doubtless already realize that one is by Ravel and the other, by Kodaly. Neither is particularly common, and the appearance of both on the same recital program is rarer still. Ravel's Sonata (composed, Thayer reminded us, in 1920-2) is an austere work that was in part colored by the experience of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire , a grand performance of which was given in Durham about a year ago by Penelope Jensen and the Mallarmé Chamber Players. The link between the two is not direct but is certainly apparent in some of the strange musical effects in Ravel's four-movement piece, which is one of a series of projected sonatas that, alas, the composer was unable to complete. The performance at Meredith was extraordinary in every respect. The dynamics were so expertly managed that, while listening intently to the intense music-making, it was possible to hear-and be bothered by-the hall's reasonably quiet air handling equipment, which is generally audible only when competing with the softest possible pianissimo. The artists seemed totally in tune with each other in terms of their view of the score, and rarely has any reading of it seemed so totally convincing.
The concert ended with an equally impressive rendition of Kodaly's Duet, Op. 7, composed about six years earlier than the Ravel, in 1914. This is not really Gypsy music but, based on his work in this score (and that aforementioned "Havanaise," too), Thayer could easily find work as a virtuoso primas (lead fiddler) in Hungary. His harmonics were absolutely steady and in tune, and his splendid vibrato made the piece sing as it rarely does. Thron was radiant as well, as she had been earlier, and both paid meticulous heed to tempi, dynamics and phrasing. A passing train gave a bit of competition during the third movement but cannot have bothered many listeners, given the intensity of the performance itself.
Since we gave a bit of information about Thayer, it is only fair to remind readers that in addition to her work with the NCS, Thron performs in a cello-and-piano duo, was a member of the Peabody Trio for five years, and has participated in concerts of the celebrated Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music. She and Thayer, along with several other NCS members, seem to be keen chamber music enthusiasts and are outstanding in this intimate genre. Needless to say, we urge readers to consult our calendar and to take in one of the repeats of this fine program.