Review: “Dumky” and “Archduke”, Zukerman Trio

Tuesday, February 3 2016
92nd Street Y, New York, NY

Zukerman Trio
    Pinchas Zukerman, violin
    Amanda Forsyth, cello
    Angela Cheng, piano

Dvořák, Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90, “Dumky” (1891)
Beethoven, Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97, “Archduke” (1811)

Something new this week: chamber music!  For a self-proclaimed classical music enthusiast, I really have quite a narrow comfort zone, don’t I?  Non-orchestral music typically need not apply, but I’m working on changing that.  Since I’ve yet to have an unfavorable reaction to anything composed by Dvořák and Beethoven, this program is as good of a starting point as any.

Dvořák, with his accessible brand of Bohemian rhapsody, is the ideal chamber composer.  Maybe I’m mostly drawn to the gravitas of Teutonic struggle, but lighter fare is enjoyable in moderation.  Actually, a dumka is a traditional lament of captive people, yet the piece radiates a very outgoing vibe.  There are passages of quiet anguish, but they are interspersed and contrasted with upbeat melodies of celebration.  The cello took on the part of mourning, and the piano, the effervescent interludes.  The violin was barely there–I mean, I’m sure that’s not what the composer intended, but that’s how the performance came off.

The “Archduke” may not be among Beethoven’s top ten hits, but the archduke in question, Rudoph, was also the namesake of the famed Emperor concerto, the piece that started my obsession with the composer.  Beethoven finished the trio shortly before starting work on his Seventh Symphony, which is interesting because the two pieces couldn’t be further apart, musically if not thematically.  In fact the “Archduke” shares some similarities with the “Dumky” played in the first half of the program.  Like the “Dumky”, it also displays great contrast between episodes of dynamic outbursts (in this case punctuated by the strings) and the more understated backdrop (created by the piano).  Supposedly the piano part was written to be relatively simple so that the patron himself could give the work its premier, and the soul of the piece lies within the cello part in the third movement.  (By design, isn’t cello the soul of every trio?)  Unfortunately, the cellist had a bit of a instrument malfunction.  To my untrained ear, I couldn’t tell what was wrong, but she was visibly distracted for the last two movements and the trio paused for a long time after the third movement so that she could fix her cello.  I’m sure on a better day they could have made more of an impression, but in some sense, the most enjoyable a chamber piece could be for me is to not make too much of an impression.  I like symphonies to overwhelm me, but at this point in my life and musical education I think I prefer chamber pieces to just float me by, enchanting me without swallowing me whole.  And tonight’s performers and source material did just that.
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Review: Dvořák and Brahms, World Civic Orchestra feat. Hai-Ye Ni

Sunday, September 6 2015
Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY

World Civic Orchestra
Vincent Koh, conductor
Hai-Ye Ni, cello

Kevin Clark, Impressions of Manhattan
Dvořák, Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191 (1895)
Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883)
Dvořák, Slavonic Dance No. 2 in E minor, Op. 72 (1869)
Brahms, Hungarian Dance No.5 in G minor (1878)

I remember the exact moment when music transformed from a hobby to something indispensable to life.  It was a Thursday in March 2012, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was performing the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo’s soulful Concierto de Aranjuez.  About three minutes in, a solo cello entered with an expressive minor key theme.  The rich texture of that cello, its depth and warmth invoking hopefulness and wistfulness at once, grabbed me in a way strings never had before.  To this day, it is one of my favorite passages of music.

Today’s concert did not feature the guitar concerto.  It did, however, feature that cellist–Hai-Ye Ni, principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  World Civic Orchestra, whatever it is, is not a first-rate orchestra, but first-rate orchestras don’t tend to invite other orchestras’ cellists to perform as soloist.  I’ll take what I can get.

Which, outside of Ms. Ni, wasn’t very much.  The first piece, Impressions of Manhattan, was composed by a member of the orchestra whose day job is an ophthalmologist.  I am usually wary of these original compositions, as they tend to be too avant-garde for my liking.  Fortunately, that appears to be reserved for first-rate bands as well.  This one was basically just an arrangement (maybe not even that) of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with some electric jazz toward the end, which was actually listenable, a pleasant surprise.

Next we get to the main event, Ms. Ni taking the stage to perform arguably one of the two greatest pieces in the cello concerto repertoire.  (Off topic: I’d be really interested to hear her take on the other of the two, the Elgar concerto.)  It was such a treat to listen to her perfect intonation and clean yet emotive sound soaring over the stage for more than a few seconds at a time.  It reminds me of listening to Hilary Hahn on the violin.  All the orchestra really had to do after the introduction was to stay out of the way, which, I’m sorry to say, it didn’t do sufficiently well.  But still the wonderful cellist and the sublime score lifted the orchestra through a full gauntlet of moods: dark and stormy in the prologue, the assertiveness of the cello’s entrance dissolving into a lyrical adagio, and an elegy in the final movement to Dvořák’s unrequited love Josephina, who had died during the composition of the piece, giving away to a jubilant conclusion.  Though nominally not a piece with heavy American influences, I feel that I can always hear hints of Americana in Dvořák.  Strangely enough, I always hear Chinese elements in his works as well.
imageAfter the esteemed soloist departed, the less said about the orchestra’s messy performance of Brahms’s Symphony No.3 the better.  Vincent Koh however was clever to end with two crowd-pleasing codas that serve to both recap the theme of the program and highlight the passable string sections of the orchestra over the highly questionable winds.  I mean, it’s hard to not want to dance along to the Slavonic and especially the Hungarian dance.  Overall, however, I’m actually really looking forward to the beginning of New York Philharmonic’s season later this month, and I *really* cannot wait to hear Ms. Ni again, next time back with her whole Philly band, at Carnegie Hall later in the fall.