by Lindsay Koob
Tuesday’s eighth Chamber series program continued its relentless onslaught of galaxy-class performances. Our cherished Charles greeted his capacity crowd cheerfully, asking us, “How many of you woke up grumpy this morning? Well, Haydn is the perfect way to start your day.”
He then introduced us to the Austrian master’s Trio in D Major for flute (Tara Helen O’Connor), cello (Alisa Weilerstein) and piano (Stephen Prutsman). After one of his inimitable vocal dramatizations of the usual Italian-language tempo markings, he asked the crowd if anybody knew what the word “tosto” meant. Tara ventured a passable pun (“Toasty, maybe?”), whereupon Wadworth barked, “I do the jokes here!”
The animated music unfolded cheerfully, with Tara’s flute in perfect synch with Prutsman’s sprightly piano. Weilerstain’s cello seemed relegated to a support role here — but she still took it very seriously (even though it looked like she was still having fun). But she was on a more equal footing in the delicious, flowing slow movement, and even took on some thematic responsibility as they all romped through the happy finale together.
Enter crack clarinetist Todd Palmer, after Wadsworth told us of Palmer’s recent performance of the next piece in the gala concert marking the reopening of New York’s Alice Tully Hall following its renovation: a singular honor. Todd proceeded to introduce us to the impending music: Three Etudes on Themes of George Gershwin, for solo clarinet, by English woodwind virtuoso and composer Paul Harvey. Palmer listed the movements (“I Got Rhythm,” “Summertime,” and “It ISN’T Necessarily So”) for us in his usual witty manner, whereupon papa Charles shut him up with “You’re being funny and charming. That’s MY Department!”
“That ain’t necessarily so,” retorted Todd. And with that, he sat down to perform some of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard for solo clarinet. Harvey built cunning fantasies on all three tunes, using snippets of the familiar tunes as musical foundations. Some allusions to the original melodies were obvious, but you had to listen closely to catch some of the subtler treatments. All three movements were rare treats — and the crowd LOVED them.
As Doc W returned to the stage with Geoff Nuttall in tow, he turned to his heir-designate, and waggled a finger in his face, scolding him with “Remember, the job’s not yours ‘til June 8!” But he still let Geoff introduce the morning’s final work: Frederic Chopin’s profoundly passionate Sonata for Cello and Piano, with Weilerstein and Prutsman again on duty.
But not until he told us that distinguished conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim (who used to be married to cello goddess Jacqueline Du Pre) has taken a strong interest in Alisa’s magical playing, with the result that she will be playing the Elgar concerto with him and the Berlin Philharmonic (voted Europe’s finest orchestra several years running) in London next season. “Steve (Prutsman) will be there, too —playing backup piano in a sleazy Soho bar,” added Wadsworth.
Geoff took over the introduction, after adding “Barenboim’s the lucky one.” And he’s right; I’ve been madly in love with this lady’s devastatingly emotive playing for years. Then he added his own story, telling about how he’d arrived at the Memminger early that day, only to find that Steve and Alisa had already been there for some time, doing some intense, detail-oriented rehearsing beyond what was scheduled — and that they probably could have done very well without it. But, as he said, “When you’re performing at this level, you’re never done — you can always make it just a little bit better. It’s what keeps us young.” And it’s just this kind of dedication that makes Spoleto’s chamber series so stupendously special.
Nuttall added that this piece is one of the few Chopin wrote for instruments other than solo piano — and that it was the last work that Chopin ever performed publicly. With that, our artists threw themselves into the amazing music. After Steve’s glittery intro, Weilerstein followed with somber tones that quickly built in passion and intensity; her playing got so furious at one point that she popped a bow-hair. The following scherzo was exuberant, but with dark and sinister passages that melted into sweet lyricism here and there.
The slow movement brought some yearning, utterly ravishing cello “singing,” to include an incredibly delicate, muted passage that — along with her whispery, rapid vibrato — jerked more than a few tears from us. The tense and overwrought finale offered some small relief in its central section, before returning to the original mood and wrapping up with a flighty, frantic coda. Prutman outdid himself, as he dealt spectacularly with his powerful and intricate piano part (Chopin is rarely easy on his performers.)
As much as we thrilled to Steve’s playing, Alisa was the crowd’s darling for this one — and not just ‘cause she’s prettier. All together now: “We Wuv Weilerstein!”