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Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert (October 2009)

The Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert

at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium

16 October 2009

Cellist Edward Arron, violinist Colin Jacobsen, and violist Nicholas Cords are the core musicians in the Museum's seven-seasons-old chamber ensemble; they (and they alone) have participated in every one of the group's performances. For the first of this year's two concerts, they had the stage to themselves. The elegant program bookended a penetrating and haunted duo for violin and cello by Sofia Gubaidulina, Rejoice!, with two works by Mozart. "Bookend" is probably not the best word to describe the Duo for Violin and Viola in B-Flat, K 424, and it is certainly not apt for the Divertimento for String Trio in E-Flat, K 563, but both classics took on fresh luster from the companionship of the modern work.

It could be said that Ms Gubaidulina's music opens our ears to things that Mozart does not do, or does only in passing, but that seems to me to miss something vital about concerts and recitals: the musicians themselves. In this case, playing rather unorthodox music exercises the arms and minds of the musicians in a way that presents them with fresh insight into much more familiar material. The Met Museum Artists are consistently interesting because they are so clearly attentive, in performance after performance, to such insights, and at this concert that attentiveness was the real theme of the program.

Rejoice!, which (we were told by Mr Arron) is based on the spiritual writings of a bygone Ukrainian, comes in five movements. The first is the most conventionally expressionistic, the most "modern" sounding. Were it not played so well with such capable attentiveness, I mean it would sound like a parody of itself. Mr Jacobsen's and Mr Arron's coherent grasp of the music precluded eye-rolling; strange, the music might be; but it was heartfelt. I am tempted to call the performance "mindfelt."

The second movement was a skein of plucked, spidery runs, while the third, showing off more conventionally, quoted Beethoven's Violin Concerto and (could this be right?) the finale of something by Britten. The fourth movement of Rejoice! is frankly mystical, registering a disembodied presence with sustained notes that evoke the ghost of Borodin (not so much the actual music Borodin) in long-breathed phrases written as if by a candle flame in a sighing wind. This was music that I'd like to get to know, and I felt enormously privileged to be present to hear it. The finale was informed by a jocular bravura that brought Fritz Kreisler to mind possibly because Mr Jacobsen's playing always suggests that he would be a magnificent exponent of Kreisler's virtuosity.

The performance of K 563 taught me something that I ought to have learned a long time ago: you can expect the performance of a rarely-played but dearly beloved composition to be either refreshing or intimate, but it is foolish to expect that it will be both. Miracles occur, but only very rarely; therefore, the important thing to do is to decide which strength a performance is likely to display and to forget about the other one. Burnishing each well-known passage with a familiar lambency generally rules out unexpected turns of phrase. The Met Artists' approach was fresh rather than sumptuous, largely because Mr Jacobsen seemed to want not to grandstand. I should have liked a more emphatic approach to his part, but his collegial alternative was certainly convincing. I missed the repeats, as I always do when Mozart is played without them, but I let that go, too. You might say that I was determined to enjoy the performance, but I'd say, rather, that I was determined to listen to it. I am learning that that is where a great deal of pleasure is to be found.

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