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World Premiere with Messrs. Ackert & Forough

Sunday, the 16th of January, regulars at the National Gallery of Art's Sunday concerts saw the head of the music department, Stephen Ackert, in a role they had likely not seen before: behind the Steinway on stage. Together with violinist Cyrus Forough, he presented a program of Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), a contemporary piece (in fact: a World Premiere!) by Alan Fletcher, Saint-Saëns, and J. S. Bach. A program that is my heart's delight: I always am all for "music with a pulse" – works by living composers – and my abiding love for Bach as well as any obscure or even just slightly off-the-beaten-path composer isn't a secret, either. Even a little ear candy like the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso can count on my kind disposition in such surroundings.

available at AmazonJ-M.Leclair, Sonatas,
J.Holloway, J.terLinden, L.U.Mortensen

The opening "Tambourin" sonata for keyboard instrument and violin from 1723 is a little baroque sparkler in four movements, showing the violinist off like few other pieces of its time. Mr. Forough's playing needed a little warming up in a West Garden Court that was (mercifully) not overheated.

Stephen Ackert, who should know the acoustics of the space (and its difficulties) better than anyone, delivered a performance that was tailored to his surroundings. Easy on the pedal and with all things legato, you could hear virtually every note, finely separated. If any fault could be found at all with his playing, it was that either as a result of his acoustic-adjusted approach or a dash too much modesty, he operated more in the background than my ears are used to from modern performances, where violinist and pianist are more equal partners than soloist and accompanist, regardless of repertoire. (Not that Bach or Leclair used the keyboard part just for a "realisation" of the violin part, either.) Another very minor quibble might be that I had recollected (perhaps erroneously) a program to announce Mr. Ackert at the piano and harpsichord. I would have been very keen on hearing him on the latter, the instrument he studied (along with the organ – under none less than Helmut Walcha, among others) and in general a woefully underrepresented music-making machine that (in small enough doses) can delight like few others.

After the Bach sonata, BWV 1015, played every bit as amiably as the Leclair, came the world premiere of Alan Fletcher's Study (Woman Holding a Balance) (2004). One does not get to hear world premieres all too often, much less of music that is actually pleasing to the ear without having to jump through any intellectual hoops. Some of the hesitancy and ambiguity of the work I can ascribe to the ethereal nature of its violin part, but for all my enthusiasm, I have to say that it sounded rather under-rehearsed on Mr. Forough's part. Lyrical, wafting along comfortably, with a floating motion and harmonies generous to the ear (the more cynical critic might say, "harmless") and not too technically challenging to either player is how it seemed (despite the slight deficiencies). Before you knew it, it was over and the composer was on stage, taking a quick bow between his two interpreters.

The program notes (.PDF file) explain more about this NGA-commissioned composition based on Vermeer's painting of the same name. If Saint-Saëns's Introduction and Rondo (played better by Mr. Forough than any other piece that night – sure-fingered, with good, clean intonation and panache) – at the end of the program is a flashy and outwardly fancy showpiece, Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin—most famously, the second sonata in D minor presented here—are the exact opposite. It is an inward-turned showpiece: it shows the player how good he (or she) is, more so than the listener. It is musical cleansing of the soul, spiritual respite, and recharges the performer, even as it demands a lot from him.

For the listener, acquaintance with the music certainly helps in appreciating it, though the Chaconne that ends the sonata in monumental fashion should reel most everybody in, granted they can take the sound of 14 minutes and 39 seconds (as in Mr. Forough's case that night) of solo violin sound. His interpretation was in the edgy, muscular category, as opposed to the mellifluous, melody-enhancing group around Shlomo Mintz and Itzhak Perlman, but far from extremes. It was brisk, but not rushed. It accentuated the corners and rhythmic pulse of the work, but not at the expense of forward movement. It was certainly not "historically informed," and it wasn't all-out romantic idiosyncrasy, either. A happy (?) medium, mostly well played. Hollering and applauding wildly, the audience then extracted a Fauré Berceuse from Messrs. Forough and Ackert as an encore.

Long as the line is to get to these free concerts, some upcoming events need special mention:
  • On January 23rd, pianist Gülsin Onay will perform works of Liszt, Elgar, and - most tantalizing - the most excellent Turkish composer Saygun. His music alone—20th-century, western European-oriented, conservative but innovative—is most definately worth going!
  • On February 27th, Leila Josefowicz will perform modern music (Yay!) by composers out of Los Angeles, among them some of E. P. Salonnen's works. Music with a pulse, again!
  • On March 6th, the chamber music event of the year (I can say so much already, with the year young, still) takes place at the NGA when the Takács Quartet will perform their completely ravishing Bartók (Quartets 3 and 4) and Beethoven's third "Rasumovsky Quartet." If you think you don't like Bartók, I especially urge you to go and get a seat where you can see them: you will leave a convert!
The complete schedule can be checked out here.