NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Dec. 14
The Nova Chamber Music Series can be counted on to offer up programs of great diversity and quality. Its concert on Dec. 14 was no exception. In this season of round-the-clock Nutcracker and Messiah, it was so refreshing to listen to an entire program of music I had never heard before, and played so well at that.
If there was a theme to the concert it was that three of the four composers — Igor Stravinsky, Nikolai Tcherepnin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff — were Russian. The fourth, Igor Iachimciuc, a faculty member of the University of Utah School of Music, is Moldovan, but as he explained in his comments prior to the performance of his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, he often is mistaken for being Russian, so perhaps that made for an unofficial unanimity. Another unifying feature is that all four eventually found a home in the West — Tcherepnin in France, the others in the United States. But there similarities end, as the divergence of compositional styles and perspectives among the composers were striking.
The program began with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, ably performed by Erin Svoboda, associate principal clarinetist of the Utah Symphony, and was followed by Tcherepnin’s Six Pieces for Horn Quartet. All pieces are miniatures depicting various moods or vignettes of no more than two or three minutes each. Yet Stravinsky’s are clearly forward-looking in rhythmic invention and melodic spareness, and are still refreshingly “modern” after a hundred years. The Tcherepnin pieces, on the other hand, took a deep bow to the 19th century, though they were composed in the same decade as the Stravinsky. Finely crafted musical depictions, most notably “Night,” and “The Hunt,” evoked reminiscences of Wagner and Berlioz in addition to Tcherepnin’s own Russian forebears. All six were wonderfully performed by the horn quartet, three of whom — Ron Beitel, Llewellyn Humphreys, and Stephen Proser — are members of the Utah Symphony. The fourth member, Nathan Basinger, performs frequently with the symphony as well. The high quality of their ensemble playing cannot be achieved other than by years of collaborative effort; and along with their Utah Symphony colleagues who performed on the program provides yet one more reason why a symphony orchestra is a city’s most important cultural resource.
These two lighter works were followed by Iachimciuc’s one-movement clarinet sonata, which was the most engrossing composition on the program. Iamchimciuc spoke of the musical crosscurrents to which he was exposed as a central-European Moldovan. The clearest influence on this particular composition was the Hungarian, Béla Bartók, with echoes of his “Contrasts” and Miraculous Mandarin. There is sometimes a fine line between being influenced by a great composer versus writing a piece that is derivative and imitative. Unlike Tcherepnin (and the Rachmaninoff later in the program), whose music was rooted in the past, Iachimciuc took Bartók’s inspiration (and traditional sonata form as well!) and ran with it. The result was something highly original and new, yet at the same time eminently accessible and compelling. Iachimciuc was aided in his musical vision by an exceptionally fine performance by Svoboda and Utah Symphony pianist Jason Hardink. It’s a challenge to find a workable acoustic balance between clarinet (and in the Rachmaninoff, the cello) and piano in Libby Gardner Concert Hall. Yet, even with all the sonata’s rhythmic complexity and technical challenges, Svoboda and Hardink pulled it off wonderfully.
Following intermission was the meatiest work on the program, the hyper-romantic Sonata for Cello in G Minor by Rachmaninoff, performed by cellist Matthew Zalkind and Hardink again at the piano. Composed in 1901, one senses that Rachmaninoff’s endlessly evolving (some would say long-winded) melodic lines represented a deep, subconscious reluctance to let go of the century that had just ended, of an irretrievable era. If there’s a certain poignancy to that sentiment, Zalkind and Hardink certainly made a good case for it, indulging themselves expressively while never becoming maudlin. Zalkind plays with an alluringly lustrous sound, yet is capable of changing tonal color on a dime to suit the musical needs of the moment. Hardink, always an immensely talented pianist, has also become an exceptionally sensitive accompanist. It would have been so easy to overplay Rachmaninoff’s densely packaged piano writing and drown out the quasi-vocal cello, which was almost entirely devoid of double-stops and chords throughout, yet Hardink played with admirable restraint without sacrificing a jot of expressiveness.
For discerning listeners of eclectic musical tastes, the NOVA Chamber Music Series once again delivered the goods, both in its unusual and creative programing, and in the uniformly high quality of performance.