Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sunday afternoon found us with our jaws resting on the floor of Sanders Theatre as we took in the debuts of two local lads with serious musical chops. The occasion was Pro Arte's fall concert, which was largely given over to the winners of its 2009 Concerto Competition, Daniel Kim and Jonah Ellsworth. Mr. Kim, who in his spare time attends the seventh grade in Lexington, MA, essayed the first movement of Beethoven's Concerto No. 3; Mr. Ellsworth, a tenth grader who admitted to being an aficionado of "Stalker" (whatever that is), took on the challenge of the first movement of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1.

As you can see if you clicked on their profiles, these two young men live and breathe classical music, which perhaps accounted for their almost preternatural calm while performing major works under the baton of a major conductor - Gunther Schuller, currently Principal Guest Conductor of Pro Arte as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner and general emeritus-of-everything around these parts. I noted with amusement that some 70 years of experience separated Mr. Schuller from his young collaborators, but there wasn't a hint of condescension from him or Pro Arte in evidence, nor, thank God, any of that exploitive "Look, he's only four and can already sing 'The Queen of the Night' aria!" vibe that clings to so many child prodigies.

Nor should there have been; for Mr. Kim and Mr. Ellsworth both exhibited not merely startling technique but also a mature sense of interpretation. Mr. Kim (at left) offered a refined touch, a very clean technical facility, and a pleasing sense of musical balance; Mr. Ellsworth (below right) was just as technically assured, and tore through the the alternately furious/grief-stricken Shostakovich with a fierce sense of attack.

Congratulations are in order all around, but I have a hunch we have the teachers of these young musicians (Marilyn Roth for Mr. Kim and Natasha Brofsky for Mr. Ellsworth) to thank in large part for the interpretative depth of their performances (really, both should have taken a bow). Which, frankly, is perfectly okay - and indeed, is as it should be; I wouldn't expect Mr. Kim to have balanced the intricacies of the Beethoven all on his own, nor would I have expected the fifteen-year-old Mr. Ellsworth to have naturally burned with the bitter, broken fire of Shostakovich. Both understood their respective pieces as musical statements, however - there's time for them to understand them as life.

The concert continued with two haunting works I'm not familiar with - Dvořák's Notturno in B Major (drawn from material intended for his String Quartet in G Major) and Honegger's Symphony No. 2. Both were essentially for string orchestra (the Honegger concludes with a poignantly affirming trumpet line), and both should be in the "standard" repertoire, at least when played and conducted as subtly and sensitively as they were here. Neither is a showstopper, however, and the audience at Sanders became somewhat restive over their course. Oh, well, screw them; these were pearls before - well, you know . . .

Gunther Schuller and Pro Arte take a bow.

The Dvořák is a kind of lonely musical meditation that at first seems to wander, but then builds, through a subtly propulsive rhythm, to a late, lyrical bloom; Schuller led it with a thoughtfulness that teased something truly exquisite from its yearning final passage. The Honegger was more challenging; the piece was written in response to the Nazi occupation of Paris, well before any hope of Allied rescue was on the horizon, and as you might expect, it's heartbroken and forlorn. Indeed, in its Adagio, the music sounds almost unable to go on. But something shocking occurs in the last movement; Honegger imbues the music with a new spirit, and a hopeful trumpet joins the strings for a closing melodic statement of faith that conjures memories of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." With its Germanic overtones, that's quite the quote for a Jewish composer like Honegger, and something about it is almost more heartbreaking than the symphony's earlier despair. Thank God Honegger lived to see his dream come true, and thank God Pro Arte (and trumpeter Dana Russian) brought this piece to such a sweetly heartfelt conclusion.

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