Comfort and Challenge: Friends of Chamber Music present new initiative, “Chamber Music Now,” with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center streaming concert

A woman and man play duo pianos.

Screenshot: Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax, on pianos, perform Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

As we’ve navigated the last ten months, art has served two main purposes: to comfort and to comment. Arguably, these are often arts’ somewhat dichotomic emphases, no matter the era, but as we wrestle with our society’s value—or devaluation—of arts, with rampant artist unemployment or relief, loss of venue and access, stressed with uncertainty and isolation, we have simultaneously turned toward art to both shield ourselves from dire reality and to make sense of these tumultuous changes.

Turns out, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has provided a program that perfectly reflects these needs, in a compelling packaged product with pianists and spouses Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax. This is part of the CMS Front Row Mainstage “Artist Series” virtual presentations. The package includes a mini documentary of the artists weathering the pandemic at home from CMS’ “Grand Pause” series this summer, concert selections from archival footage, and a post-concert Q&A, offering the intimate perspective of the artists.

This streaming presentation is made available to Kansas City audiences courtesy of The Friends of Chamber Music, as part of their “Chamber Music Now” initiative.

This program includes works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Béla Bartók, works which reflect each composers’ growth and contributed to their career successes.  In the Mozart, we hear the comfort we seek in classical music, the structure, cadence; in the Bartók, we hear the confrontation, the challenge of it.

The Bartók performance is especially poignant, as it was the last CMS live performance before the pandemic lockdown commenced, March 2020. What were you doing in those hours before our lives turned upside down?

This presentation begins, however, with an October 2014 performance of Mozart’s Concerto no. 14 in E flat major for piano and string quintet, recorded in Alice Tully Hall. Bax, on piano, collaborated with Arnaud Sussmann, violin, Bella Hristova, violin, Paul Neubauer, viola, Sophie Chao, cello, and Joseph Conyers, double bass.

Though the piece was written as a showpiece for Mozart, it starts with a hefty introduction from the strings, intimately balanced. Recording quality is high, capturing nuance that isn’t available in so many streaming offerings.

As Mozart intended, the first movement was attention grabbing, lively, with a rugged grounding. Bax gave a performance with steady assurance and light touch, like a master carpenter polishing ornate scroll work. The second movement Andantino was a velvety swirl, studded with intricate details and subtle color, a lovely viola moment from Neubauer, and resolves leaving a little something unsaid, as though Mozart, having drawn us in, is on the cusp of revealing a secret. The jovial final movement has a companionable feel to it, a togetherness which goes from comfortable country party to focused intensity.

Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, performed by Bax and Chung with percussionists Ian David Rosenbaum and Ayano Kataoka, was originally performed by Bartók and his wife Ditta Pásztory.

It’s a breathtaking piece and performed here exceptionally. This performance was recorded March 15, 2020 in the Rose Studio, the venue somberly lit. The camera work and performance edit are excellent, knowing exactly when to focus on which player. Performed without a live audience, as shutdown orders were going into place, this was to be the last performance of the year for CMS.

The work’s pianissimo timpani roll and ominous piano opening, the sudden cymbal strike prompting a scurry in piano, perfectly indicated the tensions and uncertainty that, at that time, we were only just starting to realize.

It’s a work whose consistent intensity requires virtuosity and incomparable communication. While at times it sounds chaotic and abstract, it isn’t. The movement is always driving forward, through the martial moments and the ethereal passages, as though toward a future that is unsettled but inevitable. The piano parts rippled over and through each other, which the percussion emphasized and countered.

The twining line, as the piece progressed, became more stuttered and compact. These repeated, overlapping rhythms gave an impression of coded messaging, somewhat secretive.

The shift in mood of the third movement is almost sunny, with a bright folk music-influenced xylophone melody. The carefully composed and executed work nevertheless has an element of turmoil to it, the shifting meters, timpani glissandi, sizzling, buzzing effects, scraped cymbals, causing an ill-at-ease feeling.

At the last few notes, there is no ovation to hang on, to release into, just the last lingering resonance and a moment of suspension as the artists look to each other: what now?

After the concert selections, the program included a question and answer portion with Wu Han and David Finckel, wife and husband co-artistic directors of CMS, who understand the challenges and benefits of combining personal and professional lives in chamber music. Q&As sometimes dissolve into inconsequential comments, but as Wu and Finckel are also high-profile performers, their conversation was lively, particular and as easy as though over coffee, comfortable with an eavesdropping audience.

In normal times, the Friends of Chamber Music present world class artists such as these on Kansas City stages. Late last year, the organization announced that the remainder of the scheduled 45th season was cancelled. While many of those intended acts are rescheduled for (hopefully) the 2021/22 season, this nevertheless offered another disappointment for audiences and artists alike.

Fortunately, Friends of Chamber Music is still committed to presenting the best performances to their devoted audience, and in keeping with that mission, they’ve developed a series of streaming selections, termed “Chamber Music Now,” which started on January 28th with this CMS presentation of Bax and Chung. Along with each performance, the Friends have also provided a local component, virtual program notes shared by a classical music scholar or enthusiast. In this case, the Friends presented “Listen & Learn” with Lacie Eades and Thomas Nanney. Through the month of February, and beyond, the Friends have selected virtual content that provides high class artistry presented with high quality production.

Reviewed January 29, 2021. CMS Front Row Mainstage “Artist Series” with Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, pianists, is available via Friends of Chamber Music through February 3. For more information and dates of upcoming streaming concerts visit  www.chambermusic.org/about/chamber-music-now/

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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