You get what you pay for (or not)

Years ago, I got ferocious reader backlash after observing in a review of a recital by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax that the audience seemed more enthusiastic about being in the same room as the artists than intent on hearing the Brahms sonatas they were playing.

Robert Battey may be in for the same kind of feedback after his review for The Washington Post of Ma, Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos, playing trios of Schubert and Brahms at the Kennedy Center, especially as Battey compared their performance unfavorably with that of the far less well-known Vienna Piano Trio, playing Brahms, Haydn and Schoenberg at the Library of Congress:

There are fans and there are listeners, and while there is some overlap, those constituencies and their motivations are quite distinct. So, in these cases, were their investments: The Ma-Kavakos-Ax concert commanded ticket prices of $75 to $300; tickets for Library of Congress concerts are rather laborious to acquire, but free if you can get them.

Reviewers generally get complimentary tickets. Battey’s readers paid, either with money or with time and effort. In DC over the weekend, it appears that time and effort trumped money, at least for listeners.

Review: Chamber Music Society

Nurit Pacht, violin
Khari Joyner, cello
Philip Bush, piano
Feb. 25, University of Richmond

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia paired Beethoven and Ravel in two weekend performances. A seeming odd couple: The colossus of Viennese classicism and the master of French impressionist tone painting.

Not so odd, in fact, in the second of the weekend’s performances, featuring Beethoven’s “Archduke” Piano Trio in B flat major, Op. 97, and Ravel’s Piano Trio, works that were written exactly a century apart (the Beethoven in 1814, the Ravel in 1914) and that encapsulated the musical languages and sensibilities of their creators.

This program, presented at the University of Richmond’s Perkinson Recital Hall, featured artists known for their versatility. Substituting for Areta Zhulla, who canceled her Richmond gig after being named the new first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, violinist Nurit Pacht came packing a modern violin after playing a period instrument in baroque concerts by the Chamber Music Society in December.  Pacht was joined by Khari Joyner, a young cellist whose career overlaps classical music and jazz, and Philip Bush, a veteran pianist as well-known for working in contemporary music (with Steve Reich for two decades) as for playing traditional chamber repertory.

Those biographies promised fresh perspectives on familiar scores, and the trio consistently delivered in performances of keen rhythmic acuity, fine tonal balances and attention to often-overlooked sonic and stylistic details.

On the balance front, Bush was remarkably successful in projecting prominent parts – neither Beethoven nor Ravel are known for reticent piano music – without crowding the strings.

Pacht and Joyner also played in high relief, the cellist with robust and strategically lyrical bass lines, the violinist with varying tones of brilliance and finely etched atmospherics.

In the andante cantabile of the “Archduke,” Pacht and Joyner played soulfully while deftly avoiding sentinentality. In the preceding scherzo, all three musicians brought out the structural and expressive touches with which Beethoven anticipated so much of the romantic style of subsequent generations.

Fine as this reading of the “Archduke” was, it paled alongside the trio’s performance of the Ravel, clarifying the work’s complex rhythms, wide palette of tone colors and extraordinary range of stylistic references, from high-romanticism in the first movement to Basque dance in the Pantoum and an almost medieval chant in the Passacaille.

Ravel’s exuberant finale, played to the hilt, won Pacht, Joyner and Bush a well-deserved ovation.