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Every year Brevard Music Center provides audiences in the mountain region of NC with world-class performances. WCQS-FM Music Director Dick Kowal (Asheville) described this performance as the “hot ticket in town,” and his assertion was validated with several acclaimed artists gracing the stage to showcase their superb talents. The intimate size of Searcy Hall was the perfect fit for these musicians, whose detailed attention to the nuances of the concert’s repertoire were all the more apparent for a rapt audience.
This was immediately apparent with the first selection of the evening, “Prisoner of Love,” by BMC composer-in-residence, Robert Aldridge. It is a rare opportunity to hear a composer discuss his work prior to its performance, as verified by Aldridge’s humorous quip, “most composers are dead.” Introducing the piece as his take on the film noir genre, Aldridge described the work as a blurring of vernacular American musical styles, notably jazz, as well as serious concert literature. Fortunately for Aldridge, one of the finest interpreters of both genres on the saxophone was the featured performer, Joseph Lulloff, and his equally capable collaborator, the magnificent pianist Deloise Lima.
Lima tenderly elicited crystalline sounds from the piano in the initial measures of the composition, a prelude reminiscent of Bill Evan’s impressionistic keyboard style. Lulloff entered the soundscape serenading the audience with a single, sweet soft tone on his soprano saxophone before blistering into a virtuosic cavalcade of pitches. When he played, every note counted. His improvisation in the middle of the work featured his “Bird-like” finesse, as he spit out an infinity of notes in mere milliseconds. Like Charlie Parker, Lulloff never let this rapid-fire showcase obfuscate the blues-tinged sultriness of Aldridge’s themes, crafting melodies with lyrical direction. Lima’s intense dynamic range and myriad of textures provided the perfect accompaniment for Lulloff. Both performers were so connected and in touch with the composer’s intent that Aldridge’s intent was beautifully satisfied. There were moments when it became difficult to determine where the written page and the improvisatory spirit of the brilliant saxophonist and pianist were demarcated.
The second work offered a stark contrast to Aldridge’s jazzy odyssey. The dodecaphonic, Violin Sonata No. 1 by Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke provided the most cerebral performance of the evening. To ease the audience into the avant-garde selection, violinist Carolyn Huebl provided a lucid explanation for even the most musically uninformed individual, sharing the analogy that “listening to serial music is similar to enjoying a foreign movie without subtitles – even if you don’t fully understand what is being said, you can still appreciate the larger effect.”
It requires a great deal of bravery for any musical institution, even one as established as Brevard Music Center, to present a multi-movement twelve-tone work, and they should be commended for this decision. That being said, the work was not the strongest compositional selection, not surprising since it was the composer’s first foray into 12-tone composition in the early 1960’s when serial music was at its apex of critical acclaim in the concert hall. The rhythmic simplicity of the composition, which Huebl viewed as a point of accessibility for the listener, was actually a huge detriment, especially in the fourth movement where the insistent eighth-note onslaught proved to be musically tiring. Instead of providing a dramatic conclusion for the whole sonata, the fourth movement came across more as a comical mutilation of traditional counterpoint. The work’s harmonic variety, in contrast to the brilliant colors of the Aldridge, was monochromatic and one-dimensional.
Huebl and her accompanist, Douglas Weeks, both had the opportunity to display their impressive chops on all 4 movements. Huebl flawlessly navigated the rapidly alternating double stops and quick glissandi of the second movement with expert precision, and sublimely executed the final harmonics of the 3rd movement (based on a Shostakovich passacaglia), with an intense whisper and zen-like control. Weeks exhibited rhythmic accuracy of the highest perspicacity, and perfectly captured the Soviet angst of the music with a thunderous ferocity. At times, however, this same exhilarating display of power created a serious balance issue between both instruments, with the piano overpowering the violin.
Following intermission, the second half was devoted to the main attraction of the evening, Mozart’s legendary Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. When played well, Mozart sounds like the easiest music to perform – effortless and logical, each melodic idea a coherent link in the greater musical chain of his timeless compositions. All four members of the quartet, pianist Donna Lee, violinist Rebecca Corrucinni, violist Maggie Snyder, and cellist Benjamin Karp captured the essence of the classical genius’ innovative work. Lee, a pianist of international renown, exquisitely captured the simultaneous jocundity and rationality of Mozart’s music, her fingers dancing across the keyboard with graceful finesse and erudite conviction. The balance within the string trio was phenomenal, every player sensitive to their voices in the overall sonority while shining as a soloist at the appropriate moments. The canonic interplay of rapid 16th notes was exchanged with collective intuition between Corrucinni and Snyder. Not only did they execute the scalar runs with metronomic accuracy, but they achieved the even more difficult feat of unity of character. For that matter, the entire quartet achieved continuous E.S.P. throughout the tripartite masterpiece, exhibiting a unity from the opening declamatory fanfare to the final moments of the deceptive coda, where all four players matched their intensity and timbre in such a way that the violin, viola, cello and piano blended into one glorious instrument.