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NGA American Music Festival, Part 1

Mark Kaplan and Yael WeissIn conjunction with the Jasper Johns exhibit, the National Gallery of Art is hosting its 62nd American Music Festival, over the course of three installments of its free Sunday concert series. This past Sunday, it featured violinist Mark Kaplan and pianist Yael Weiss, both faculty members at Indiana University (and also husband and wife), in a program (.PDF file) they called "three generations of New Yorkers." This difficult music -- pieces for violin and piano by Roger Sessions (1896-1985), Elliott Carter (b. 1908), and Joel Feigin (b. 1951) -- could have few performers who serve it any better. The success or failure of each part of the recital rested only on the appeal of the score. The audience in the East Building Auditorium was sparse but mostly attentive, especially after a few strains of Sessions had driven off the mildly curious.

The opening work, a Duo for Violin and Piano composed by Roger Sessions in 1942, was rendered as four movements of rather different color. In the first, a melancholy, long-breathed violin line slowly arches over a gentle piano moto perpetuo, becoming more active in a middle section and then returning to calm. Here and in the lovely third movement, Kaplan and Weiss demonstrated that dissonance can be so pretty if played lyrically. Even jagged melodies, like those in the expressionistic second movement and the opening scherzo of the fourth (a dancelike flitting back and forth) can be treated as phrases in the same way you would approach Mozart (well, not exactly the same way). Throughout the Sessions piece, I admired the sound Kaplan got from his violin and was not surprised to learn later that he plays the Marquis Stradivarius (dated 1685), an early instrument from the Cremonese master but still of exquisite craftsmanship.

By contrast to Kaplan's extroverted playing, Weiss seemed reserved, choking off her sound with a lot of soft pedal and a touch that sometimes seemed not fully in the keys, making for sensitive playing that rarely challenged the violin's supremacy. The second work, Feigin's Veränderungen (Transformations, 1995) was suited to this approach, opening with whispery, ethereal sounds, including gentle stroking of the strings inside the piano cabinet. The composer, a student of Sessions, seemed to transform himself, too, with music that morphed temporarily into Debussy; there were even hints of Paganini in a virtuosic passage for violin. With some exciting, visceral playing in the fortissimo middle section, the piece closed with a sudden shift toward predominantly triadic harmony.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Violinist Mark Kaplan (Washington Post, February 20)
The less said about the concluding work, Elliott Carter's Duo for Violin and Piano (1974), the better. The intellectual ideas behind Carter's music are not always of sufficient interest to propel this listener through the relentless, humorless abstraction. This piece was no exception. Carter dedicated this piece to his wife, Helen, intending it to be understood as an expression of love, because the two instruments allow one another absolute freedom as they exist together in time. The temporal and intervallic separation meant that both players were so caught up in the difficult mathematical relationships of the work, their heads bobbing up and down in different meters, that the performance was often like two pieces happening in parallel. That was, to be sure, precisely the idea, but with frustrating consequences when that idea is extended for as long as this work. You win some, you lose some.

The second concert of the National Gallery's American Music Festival will feature pianist Alan Feinberg (February 25, 6:30 pm), playing music by Babbitt, Cage, Feldman, Helps, Ives, and Nancarrow. It will also take place in the East Building Auditorium.

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