by Marvin J. Ward
We have recently had a number of endurance-type recitals at Duke University in Durham. On June 22 at 3:00 p.m., the Borromeo String Quartet gave all six of the Bartók quartets in the Bryan Center, and on July 2 at 7:00 p.m., Alan Toda-Ambaras offered Bach's six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in the Freeman Center for Jewish Life. The Bartók recital lasted 3-3/4 hours, the Bach, 2-1/2, both including two intermissions.
The important piece of information lacking in that sentence is that Alan, known by his friends as Allie, was born in 1991, and is, therefore, a mere 12 years old. He currently studies with Leonid Zilper, of the NC Symphony.
There were approximately 30 in attendance at the outset of the recital, including quite a number of small children, but the audience thinned, perhaps understandably, by about one third at the first intermission after the third Suite, and by another third at the second after the fifth Suite.
The works are all constructed according to the same pattern: a Prelude, an Allemande, a Courante and a Sarabande followed by two Menuets in Nos. 1 and 2, two Bourées in Nos. 3 and 4, and two Gavottes in Nos. 5 and 6, and concluding with a Gigue. If you've done the math, this makes for 42 movements. Playing them requires an enormous amount of energy. Except for the opening movement, these are all Renaissance and Baroque dance rhythms. It is incredibly easy for the player to slide from one Suite into another if s/he is not careful. Allie did not fall into the trap, although he played the entire recital without a score. Neither did his energy slacken; he attacked the spirited sections of the sixth with as much drive as he did those of the first.
If you closed your eyes, as I did a few times, there is no way you could possibly imagine that the music you were hearing was being made by an early teen. He produced good tone and his intonation was well-nigh perfect, although tropical storm Bill, with its 100% humidity, played havoc with the instrument, forcing Allie to re-tune several times; it was the worst during Suites 4 and 5, when it was pouring down rain outdoors. He brought out many subtleties in the various movements, differentiating them from each other as much as possible. He closed his eyes occasionally, too, losing himself in the music in some of the more lyrical passages but never once getting lost in it. Although the printed program carried a note saying: "Alan has prepared the complete suites, and will perform as many as time and energy permit," he did not give up before making it through all of them. Fatigue was occasionally evident in the final one, perhaps increased by the frustration caused by Bill, but aside from producing a few notes that were too shrill, there was no tiredness in the playing. And, unlike another gifted musical prodigy that we heard at the keyboard in the Triangle for several years, Allie is relaxed and poised, acknowledges the audience's applause appropriately - and he smiles. What a delight!
That a 12-year-old can play a 2.5-hour recital from memory with such precision, understanding, and sensitivity for the music is absolutely astounding. It is even more amazing when it is known that this was his third recital in a month, each with completely different repertoire. Next week, he heads to Japan - he speaks the language as well as French, and English, of course - for the summer where he will also do some playing - Brahms and Beethoven for starters. If his schedule and academic load at Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill permit it, we hope to have the opportunity to hear more from him when he gets back. You should make it a point to hear him, too.