Mark Gresham | 18 JUL 2023
Sunday’s sunny late afternoon was a fitting time to return of for second weekend at the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival. As with the previous Sunday, this one was at Lewis Hall, Village Green Commons, in Cashiers, North Carolina.
Pianist Julie Coucheron opened the concert with the Lyric Pieces, Op. 43 by Edvard Grieg — the third of 10 collections of miniature “lyric pieces” for solo piano by the Norwegian composer, and some of the most charming of the genre. There are six in this particular set. Grieg wrote two while staying in Denmark and the other four while back home in Norway. Coucheron gave us a thoughtfully intimate performance of these characteristic pieces by her fellow countryman.
Cellist Charae Krueger joined Coucheron for Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Op. 47, a favorite must-play piece of the cello repertoire, giving it a very appealing, insightful performance with sensitively detailed phrasing.
Violinist Alice Hong then took the stage for two short unaccompanied works, beginning with the aptly-named STOMP by John Corigiliano, a six-minute piece written in 2010 for the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia.
STOMP challenges the violinist with three problems in listening, style, and coordination. First, the violin is tuned scordatura, with two of the strings set to non-standard pitches. Second, the piece is based stylistically on American bluegrass and jazz practices rather than classical precepts. Finally, as in fiddling, the violinist is instructed to stomp their foot with the music.
It would be easy to think at first of dismissing the stomping as a cheap gimmick, and plenty enough of composers have used it that way, but that is not the case with Corigliano’s music. The stomping feels like a natural extension of the body movements derived from the violinist’s performance technique, not mere artifice. As the composer says, STOMP “demands a theatrical mind, an unerring ear, and a delight in making music with the entire body.”
Hong followed it with Fritz Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice, Op. 6, one of the violinist-composer’s most kaleidoscopic short encores for solo violin, 4-1/2 minutes of pure Kreisler, full of musical drama and fireworks, and proved an excellent companion Corigliano’s STOMP.
These were both impressive ear-opening performances from Hong. For some reason, down in metro Atlanta where she is based, we don’t typically hear Hong perform in a musical context with this kind of repertoire, but we should. Fortunately, HCCMF has made this possible in western North Carolina. Atlanta presenters and audiences should take note.
After an intermission, Hong, Krueger, and Coucheron came together to perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49. As often as I have heard it performed, this particular instance was a genuine standout. There is a special chemistry between these three musicians that is very rare.
Typically the opening “Molto Allegro agitato” tempo is pressed forward in terms of sheer velocity as if that defines the “agitato” element. In this performance, we got a refreshing, relaxed pace that revealed more of Mendelssohn’s lyricism than a hasty agitation would without losing a necessary forward momentum. The music was allowed to breathe with splendidly shaped phrasing.
The “Andante con moto tranquillo” second movement expanded further upon the lyrical element while the Scherzo (“Leggiero e vivace”) evidenced mercurial joy. The bustling Finale (“Allegro assai appassionato”) featured velocity aplenty, no holding back, with refreshing contrast appearing in the movement’s more cantabile moments.
While the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival offers consistently excellent concerts, Sunday’s performance was particularly engaging. ■
The Highlands-Cashers Chamber Music Festival continues through August 9.
- Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival: h-cmusicfestival.org