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KC Chamber Players in Terrace Theater

Darius Milhaud
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

On Sunday evening in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the Kennedy Center Chamber Players, all principals of the National Symphony Orchestra, presented a polished program of music tied loosely together by the theme of contrast between sacred and profane.

The program began with Darius Milhaud’s four-movement Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano, op. 157b (1936), for which pianist Lambert Orkis was joined by violinist Marissa Regni and clarinetist Loren Kitt. The piece’s prevailing lighthearted and danceable mood is tinged with tongue-in-cheek detachment and polytonal complexity, while a dreamy second movement reveals a heart of childlike simplicity. In a smooth and precise reading, Regni played with especially tender, almost vibrato-free purity in the second movement. Here as throughout the evening, Orkis was the most expressive performer of the group.

Next, Orkis joined cellist David Hardy for César Franck’s Sonata in A Major (1886), written for violin and piano and later arranged, with the composer’s blessing, for cello and piano. The piece gains expressive depth with the use of cello instead of violin, although in Sunday’s performance the cello was swallowed up by the piano in places where a violin would have soared above it. This was not helped by the placement of the cellist right next to the piano, making it hard to distinguish the two instruments. In this world-weary sonata, Franck’s nomadic chromaticism and cyclic rehashing of motifs create a sense of endless searching without finding. Orkis and Hardy brought an appropriately grand seriousness to the piece, while also injecting fire into its exhilarating fast passages. At times, though, this entailed a loss of some precision in the piano part. Hardy delivered the cello’s final gruff outburst with dramatic flair.

Orkis and Hardy returned for J. S. Bach’s Sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b. Bach reworked this piece in different keys and for different instruments; it is more commonly performed on flute or oboe than on cello. Bach’s unsettled chromaticism here recalled Franck’s, and Orkis and Hardy again grappled ably with this intricate music. However, they also succumbed to some of the dangers of playing Bach on modern instruments; it was generally too bright and insistent. Hardy’s higher register began to fray toward the end, sounding squeaky and not quite in tune. The players closed with Béla Bartók’s Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano (1938). This fiery piece was commissioned by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, and in it, Eastern European dances mingle with jazz riffs appropriate to Goodman’s style. The players reveled in its eccentricities, from the opening mock-serious military recruiting dance to the jarringly mistuned (scordatura) violin scratchings of the final movement.

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