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John Adams Residency, Day 2

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E.-P. Salonen, Lachen verlernt (inter alia), J. Koh

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Adams, Road Movies (inter alia), J. Koh, R. Uchida
Half of the concerts in the Library of Congress's residency with composer John Adams are in the Coolidge Auditorium, with the other half at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, including last night's recital by violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida. The only apparent benefit gained by doing this is that one does not have to go through a security check at the Atlas, a tradeoff probably not worth the loss in acoustics. The audience being mostly the same as the one that shows up at the Library of Congress, it seems unlikely that anyone who would go hear Jennifer Koh at the Atlas would not, for whatever reason, go to hear her at the Library of Congress, where it is both easier to park and closer to a Metro stop. Not that I mind one way or the other, since both venues are about the same distance from me, but it does seem like the Atlas venture is mostly about adopting some kind of hip appeal.

Adams explained the concept of this program as centered on "what's ethnic about a work of art," combining music that had some "connection with the demotic, with the daily culture" of a place. That included a diptych of two central European composers both known for their absorption of folk music and the rhythms of their languages. Koh gave Janáček's violin sonata a compelling sense of narrative, a speech-like fluidity, with a beautifully limpid tone on the violin, especially velvety and soft in the striking second movement ("Ballada"). At the keyboard Uchida was also best here, creating a misty veil of sound with the rolled piano chords, although there was some stickiness in her octaves in the first movement. The third movement had a folk-like heartiness, with Koh drawing out a raucous tone through the mute in the B section. Bartók's 1944 sonata for solo violin, on the second half, was the highlight of this excellent program, strikingly different in its folk sublimation from the Janáček. Each phrase and idea was so clearly etched, all the more remarkable because Koh played without a score, making some vicious sounds but also playing with many colors and exceptional suavity. The fuga, with all of its demanding double stops, was so clear and clean in the overlaying of contrapuntal voices, with almost faultless intonation. The last two movements featured a symphonic conception of sound, with solo sections answered by fuller textures as in a sort of concerto, and the nocturnal serenade section marked by ghostly echos in harmonics. A tour de force performance all around.

Where Koh and Uchida sounded best together was in the oldest piece on the program, Schubert's A major sonata (D. 574), the almost banal A theme of the first movement treated guilelessly, with Koh's radiant simplicity of tone and Uchida's light, lovely touch serving this tuneful music so well. It is a happy-go-lucky sort of piece, its rollicking scherzo second movement playful more than mischievous and a tender-hearted trio -- unfortunately, the return to the scherzo caught the page-turner by surprise, the first of two such gaffes. Uchida's consummate professionalism kicked in and she recovered expertly in spite of it all. The slow movement had no whiff of tragedy about it, just avian trills and twittering traded between the instruments, while in the finale the piece finally cut loose and danced its way home. The contemporary slot was filled by Esa-Pekka Salonen's Lachen verlernt, a chaconne composed in 2002, which Koh also played at Strathmore last December. As an unaccompanied piece it demanded comparison with the Bartók, against which it held its own both formally and in terms of virtuosity, music that is enjoyable both to listen to and to reflect on afterward, again impressing by Koh's pure intonation, even in double stops.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, At Atlas, Jennifer Koh offers an unforgettable whirlwind of sound (Washington Post, May 25)
Finally it was time for some Adams, represented here by Road Movies, an homage to the delights of driving on the open road in the American West, written for a commission from the Library of Congress's McKim Fund in 1995. The composer described his connection to the "ethnic" in music as represented by blues, country fiddling, and the American music of Stravinsky. Adams once described the thing he disliked most about the serial, academic styles of composition was that "rhythm was atomized," a trend that his infectiously metrical, syncopated music -- and Road Movies is a prime example -- shows as a dead end. The first movement, in spite of that second page-turning mishap, flowed and turned in a mesmerizing way, down to the high flautando violin note that ends it. The second movement, a "desert landscape" as Adams put it, with its many blue notes, was punctuated by the croaking low F of Koh's scordatura tuning -- Adams calls for the G string to be tuned a whole step down. The wild ride of the third movement was breath-suspending in its quickness, prickling on jabs of sound from the keyboard.


Jonathan said...

Good review of a great concert, but I would disagree about the venue: nice to shake it up for a change. There was a younger vibe to the audience, with definitely more tattoos than I've seen at any LoC concert. Also, it was pretty nice to go next door afterwards for a cocktail.

Charles T. Downey said...

Two different anecdotal accounts, I suppose. I just think the change is transparently cosmetic -- the increase in tattoos is because of the programming, not the venue, I would wager. Proximity to cocktails is only a matter of blocks, anyway.

The desperate grab for a younger audience is unseemly -- see the lede of Stephen Brookes's review in the Post for an example of what I mean.

Jonathan said...

I don't think any grab for a younger audience for classical music in DC can be described as unseemly. Badly needed, more like!