Wednesday, 4 February 2009

February 2, 2008

Polusmiak, Berman-Järvi Share "New Beginnings" at NKU

Mary Ellyn Hutton

polusmiak_2.jpgSergei PolusmiakTatiana-0158_1.jpgTatiana Berman-Jarvi

What do you get when you put Russian and Ukrainian musicians together onstage?  Energy problems? (Analogy to the clash between the two countries over energy policy shamelessly intended.)
Quite the contrary, there was musical energy to spare Friday evening in Northern Kentucky University’s Greaves Concert Hall.
The occasion was NKU’s “New Beginnings,” a chamber music series featuring distinguished artist-in-residence Sergei Polusmiak and guests.  Polusmiak, a native of Kharkiv, Ukraine, welcomed Russian born violinist Tatiana Berman-Järvi -- neither was fazed by the Arctic weather outside -- for a program aptly described as a “mixture of French beauty and Russian power.”
“French beauty” referred to three Gallic works, Olivier Messiaen’s 1932 Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano, Sonata for Violin and Piano by Debussy and Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano by Cesar Franck. 
 The “Russian power” denoted Rachmaninoff’s muscular Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36, as well as power of a subtler sort, Tchaikovsky’s lovely “Meditation,” Op. 42, No. 1, for Violin and Piano.
 Polusmiak, “Honored Artist of Ukraine,” who immigrated to the U.S. in 1998, is a cogent example of the great tradition of piano playing exemplified by Vladimir Horowitz and his sister Regina, with whom Polusmiak studied in Ukraine.
   Berman-Järvi has been putting audiences on notice since coming to Cincinnati in 2004 (she is married to Cincinnati Symphony music director Paavo Järvi) that she is an exceptional artist who concedes nothing to today’s top-ranking fiddlers.  A product of the Yehudi Menuhin School in England and London's Royal College of Music, she displays her violinistic pedigree in everything she does. 
   She opened with the Messiaen, a work of mystical embodiment in the manner of his well known “Quartet for the End of Time” (performed by Berman-Järvi and members of the chamber group Concert:Nova at Cincinnati’s Christ Church Cathedral in December).
    Berman-Järvi possesses a distinctive tone – ineffably sweet, with a rapid, precise vibrato that she applies with exquisite musicianship.  Even the most intense moments never veer into excess or self-indulgence, but serve the music. (Three-quarters of a violinist’s tone, is a product of the player, not the instrument --  Berman-Järvi plays on an 1840 violin by British violin maker William E. Hill.)  
   These gifts, allied to technique in spades, served her and the music well in the Messiaen, where she soared above pealing chords by Polusmiak in the final variation, in the Tchaikovsky “Meditation,” which she capped with a silvery, stratospheric, high D, and, indeed, throughout the concert.
   Polusmiak can be a volcanic pianist and he was in the Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2, a work which lends itself to such playing.  In three movements, the last two played without pause, the music is often turbulent, even angry, with volleys of notes pouring from the keyboard.  At such moments, Polusmiak seemed to have all 88 keys in his hands, helpless to do anything but his bidding, aided by effective, liberal pedaling. 
   The second movement was gentle and quasi-rhapsodic, the final movement tumultuous in the extreme, drawing an instant standing ovation from the crowd.  Obviously immersed in his playing and the excitement of the moment, Polusmiak waved from the wings rather than returning to center stage to acknowledge the applause (perhaps needing to retreat for de-compression).
   The two violin/piano sonatas followed after intermission.  Debussy’s Sonata, composed in the shadow of World War II, had a sometimes wistful, fluid elegance, from the Berman-Järvi's soft, opening statement to the playful second movement and the brisk finale.  
   Franck’s A Major Sonata made a sterling finish to the recital (Franck composed it for Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, music director of the CSO from 1918-22).  Collaboration by the two artists was superb here, Berman-Järvi applying her bow expertly and judiciously for a big, lustrous sound which she could plateau easily to match Polusmiak’s.  Twice they shaped the Sonata’s cyclical opening theme to a blossoming climax.
   Beginning with ominous rumblings in the piano, the second movement grew impetuous and wonderfully expressive.  The violin/piano dialogue in the third movement was touching, powerful and evenly matched, setting a serious mood that melted charmingly in the finale.  Here they took off after one another in high good humor (it is structured imitatively), working up to an exuberant ending and earning another standing ovation. 

February 3, 2009

Concert::Nova Does It in the Dark

Mary Ellyn Hutton

There were no hallucinations at Monday evening’s “Concert in the Dark” at the Contemporary Arts Center.
   For that, the chamber group Concert:Nova may need to perform in Mammoth Cave or nearby Carter Caves in Kentucky.  There it is possible – and routinely done as part of visits to the caves -- to extinguish all light and be in profound darkness.  (It is well recognized that deprivation of one sense, such as sight or hearing, tends to sharpen the others.)
  Still, the performance in the CAC’s “black box” Performance Space gave its listeners an idea of what that experience might be like. Cincinnati neuro-scientist Christopher Brubaker enlightened the audience with a lecture on music and the brain, which he interspersed among the five works on the program.
   They were:  Handel/Halvorsen’s Passacaglia for Violin and Viola; Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4; Charles Koechlin’s Sonata for Two Flutes, Op. 75; “Fratres” for String Quartet by Arvo Pärt; and “Last Round” by Osvaldo Golijov.
   C:N performers included violinist/violist Mauricio Aguiar, violinists Eric Bates, Tatiana Berman-Järvi and Anna Reider, violists Heidi Yenney and Joanne Wojtowicz, cellists Theodore Nelson and Susan Marshall-Petersen, bassist Skip Edwards and flutists Randolph Bowman and Jasmine Choi.
   Logistics were tricky, even in the lower level CAC Performance Space.  The musicians performed behind a black screen and used stand lights with blue gel filters to read their music (performing from memory would have been the impractical alternative).
   There was ambient light in the room and one’s eyes quickly adjusted to it so that there was never a feeling of losing one’s bearings.   One could listen with closed eyes, but this does not fool the brain into thinking it is truly dark.  Some listeners focused their gaze on the floor or otherwise compensated to achieve the feeling of total darkness.
   For this listener, the feeling was of being offstage at a concert.  To demonstrate the true effect of the experience -- dark vs. light, seeing the performers vs. just hearing them -- the screen was taken down after Golijov’s “Last Round,” which was then repeated with the musicians in full view. 
   This is what drove the experiment home.  “Last Round” is an elegy for Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, who took the tango from the bordello to the concert hall with his many tango-inspired compositions.  It is a kind of simulated bandoneon, the accordion-like instrument closely associated with the tango. There were squeeze-box sounds, much skittering by a double string quartet and tango rhythms galore.  To actually see the players perform this evocative music multiplied its impact many fold, suggesting that visual stimulus plays an important role in the emotional aspect of music.
   It also emphasized what most music-lovers already know: that there is nothing like a live performance, where the eyes as well as the ears can be drawn into the experience, and why having the right venue for a concert is so important. 
   In his remarks, Brubaker explained how the brain perceives music, from its reception in the ear to its transmission to the brain and how it is processed.  Unlike sight, there is no single music center in the brain, he said.  Pitch, timbre (color), melody, harmony and rhythm involve different brain centers, which also differ in location and degree between musicians and non-musicians.
   Music's effect on the emotions is more mysterious, he said, but brain scans of people listening to music that gives them chills clearly show that it activates the same pleasure pathways as drugs, food and sex. 
   He also explained that unfamiliar music can prompt the “fight or flight” response and referred to the famous riot that accompanied the world premiere of Stravinsky’s revolutionary “Rite of Spring” in Paris in 1913.  (After it became "familiar" -- a very short time after the premiere -- it was received with adulation and went on to become one of the century’s most popular works.)
   C:N artistic director Ixi Chen says that with brain science such an important field of research right now, she would like to make  “Concert in the Dark” an annual event.
   Perhaps a run out to Carter Caves is in order?