Contrasts at the 92Y

The 92Y recently concluded a series of three concerts entitled Contrasts, designed to educate the ear while exploring rare practices in classical and modern music. When people think of contrast in music they typically imagine the comparison of sound between two musical instruments or variations of theme. The one performance I attended featured works by Mozart and composer Jörg Widmann brought together two very different compositional styles, the classic and modern, without losing the thread completely.

The evening began with Alexander Lonquich’s performance of Mozart’s Fantasia for Piano in C Minor. Mozart’s starts in C minor and modulates throughout almost chromatically until finally coming back to C minor. As in the impromptu, the Fantasia form is all about improvisation and Mozart give us this dynamism with unexpected turns reflecting a variety of emotions on his journey. This is Mozart freeing himself from the restraint of classical music. It is an excellent introduction to contrast in that there is a lot of wandering without losing a fundamental structure.

Composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann’s, 24 Duos for Violin and Cello, Book II followed, gamely performed by Christian Tetzlaff and sister Tanja Tetzlaff. The two siblings squared off in these elaborate, truncated arguments, with their simmering tensions marked by extensive use of tremolo and pizzacato only to break off suddenly into sweet reconciliation as in Petit ballet mecanique (Pas de deux) and Valse bavaroise. It was so heated that Ms. Tetzlaff broke a string on her cello. There were moments when the call and response quality reminded me of Tom terrorizing Jerry with cat and mouse appeal.

After all this aggression we drifted lightly into the old world led by the delicate arpeggios at the beginning of Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major. The graceful theme and its’ poetic variations are all in stark contrast to the emotional outbursts of 24 duos. Mozart plays with the sonata form which is typically three movements of fast slow fast instead starting with a romantic adagio followed by a short allegro. The result is that we arrive at the third movement much quicker. A profound lyrical quality presides. For now, we leave behind the modern, German angst of Widmann, and dash through the rain barefoot on plush green grass. This is music that brings a smile to your face from a lightness of being.

Following intermission we stayed in the joyful mode with Mozart’s Variations for Piano Four Hands, again in G major. A short, trifle of a piece, probably composed to pay a debt, was nonetheless appropriate to the program at hand. The theme is presented in andante followed by five variations. Here the contrast is inherent in the variations themselves and the two performers playing the same instrument, elaborately coming together while losing each other at the same time. Mr. Lonquich and Cristina Barbuti played hide and seek very well.

The light quality of the Variations was replaced with darkness literally with Widmann’s original composition Nachstück (Night Piece). This foreboding, droning arrangement is much more tonal than lyrical. The clarinet holds the note for seemingly an eternity while at other times the instruments blend together seamlessly. The composition is held together more by intensity than anything else and hints at jazz with its’ be bop and hustle and bustle. It is very urban. In the end the piano repeats an ominous phrase that makes me think of the suspense of Hitchcock.

The program ended with the soothing elegance of Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano. The Kegelstatt (which means bowling alley in German) was the first chamber music composition of it’s kind for these three instruments in 1786. The combination, which is still rare, sounds beautiful.

What do we learn from a night of contrasting music? For me, I realize that conceptual boundaries or structure in music can always be pushed, augmented and redefined while our perception of the said boundaries can likewise grow. Expansion of any given vocabulary always fosters greater depth, resonance and understanding.


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