Just under two weeks ago two remarkable concerts took place in Tucson, my home town.
It is hard to make a violin sound great in the city’s Music Hall. Only really fine ones can project. So my ears perked up when Angelo Xiang Yu began to play Prokoviev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Tucson Symphony under the direction of guest conductor David Lockington. Yu’s sound, rich and full, flowed effortlessly. Even his softest utterances had impact. It could be his fiddle, but I suspect it also must be his soul. There wasn’t a note out of tune or a misjudged bow stroke. Every phrase had life and a reason for being in the ongoing musical discourse. I haven’t heard such a perfect performance from one so young in a very long time. Called back for encores, he performed some Paganini and then Massanet’s Thais. With the first, he captured his audience with acute virtuosity, and then with the second brought them nearly to tears with his soulful, introspective singing. This is a new cat on the block to be seriously watched, or better, heard.
I then walked over the to the neighboring theatre where the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music were giving the final concert of its annual winter chamber music festival. The festival, headed by former cellist Peter Rejto, has been going on for twenty-four years and is uniformly stellar. This year was no exception. Performers come from here and abroad, and include the seasoned and the young. I mention them here by name because they were among the strongest I have heard, both in individual level of accomplishment and in their preternatural ensemble unity. It helps when performances are filled with precision, and wit and joy. The performers included: flutist Carol Wincenc who is always winsome and perky; oboist Nicholas Daniel who played with wit, verve, and a hint of Mozartian naughtiness; clarinetist Charles Neidich, who is as smooth, expressive and virtuosic as it gets; hornist William Pervis who plays with style and grace and never misses a note; and Benjamin Kamins who provided as clean and clear a bass part as you will find. Pianists Piers Lane and Bernadette Harvey provided rock- solid accompaniment as necessary and their solo bits were always impeccably elegant. The Jupiter String Quartet, a group in residence at the University of Illinois Champagne/Urbana, provided a dose of youthful energy but didn’t skimp on soulfulness and lyricism either.
And now the music. Poulenc was represented by his witty Sextet for Piano and Winds. I used to think his music too light and superficial to be taken seriously, but now I find it witty, saucy, well-timed, and elegant. A brand new piece came next, by Pierre Jalbert. I have never heard a piece of his I haven’t admired and this one was no exception. A Piano Quartet in four movements, this one includes a first movement-Mannheim Rocket- which features simple scalar passages always going up; Kyrie, a chant-like movement; a scherzo, that featured wispy glissandi a la Earle Brown’s String Quartet; and finally a last movement, Pulse, which does just that for its entirety. His music, and this piece, is well-crafted, and full of energy well-placed, and reveals a deeper soul as well. He combines disparate materials in a way that is natural and communicative. The music moves with clarity and purpose, and is never forced. Structures are clear and satisfying, and while the music reveals its glories on first hearing, it is evident there is more to be discovered on further listenings. Neither hip nor trendy, Jalbert is the real thing, a composer who has things to say and says them very, very, well.
The concert ended with Schubert’s Octet in F Major. Joined by a bevy of additional players, this piece of almost endless eight bar phrases- but oh what eight bar phrases!- was played with warmth and a sense of generosity.
Finally, the Festival and the AFCM are to be commended for their rigorous commissioning program. If one counts the commissions for the festival and the regular season, I suspect their’s number more that the other top ten chamber music societies combined!