Friends of Music Concert is Superb

Music Review - The News-Times, Friday, March 14, 2003

by Howard Tuvelle

On a sunny Sunday - rare these days - the 25th season of the Newtown
Friends of Music offered its fourth concert. Violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama,
and pianist-violinist Melvin Chen, gave a joint recital in a program that
began traditionally with a J.S.Bach (1685-1750) Sonata for Viol and Keyboard,
in D.

Whether or not there were some Bach "authenticists" in the audience
(those who prefer Bach's music played as historically authentic as possible),
it seemed this was a "Romantic" interpretation or performance.
That is, the viola part playing in long voluptuous sustained melodic lines,
while Chen's detached keyboard style (each note rather bounced-out) seemed
to emulate the harpsichord. One felt, somehow, the dilemma of listening
to two distinct eras and modes of execution, compatible though they seemed.

Be that as it may, it was expressive playing as well as accurate, note-wise.
Only in the final movement, marked "Allegro," with the piano
lid fully opened, did it seem as if the 9 feet of piano strings overpowered
the viola.

The chief entrée for the violist was the German composer, Paul
Hindemith's (1895 - 1963) "Sonata for Solo Viola, Opus 25, No.1,"
dated 1922. This was the composer's "early period" (he later
became an American citizen and taught at Yale University). Many have described
the compositions from this period as both provocative and aggressive,
often outrageously offensive to "good taste."

This sonata, admittedly, sent many listeners scurrying through their program
notes for undoubtedly some explanation of its musical language, which
was dissonant and somberly serious. A challenging work for any artist,
with angular musical motifs and near abrasive double-stops (two pitches
played simultaneously), Ngwenyama managed to draw out what tonal lyricism
and beauty one could recognize.

It was no wonder that to some there was a sigh and sense of relief in
welcoming the Mozart (1756 - 1791) "Duo for Violin and Viola, in
Bb, K424," concluding the first half of the program. Even though
it begins with a slow introduction, Mozart's seriousness always carries
with it an underlying and inherent sense of optimism.

Chen is as fine a violinist as he is a pianist, and the two artists revealed
some of the afternoon's most sparkling playing. Their ensemble was matchless,
and in the bristling final movement brought the audience to a rousing
applause.

After intermission the two musicians, Ngwenyama wearing a pink, halter-top
dress that glittered, and Chen in dark suit and tie, came on stage for
the program's culminating work. Silhouetted against the hall's white but
blank movie screen, they launched into "Sonata for Viola and Piano
in F minor, Op.49" by the Russian Anton Rubinstein (1829 - 1894),
whose famous pupil was Tchaikovsky.

Here is a large and lush, fully "Romantic" piece. The piano
has sweeping runs and arpeggi from one end of the keyboard to the other;
the viola part rendering long and expressive melodies. And let it be said:
the balance was perfect.

One could hear influences of other composers, perhaps Grieg and Brahms.
Both instrumental parts demanded expansive techniques and both performers
were more than equal to the task.

It was an afternoon of solid and enjoyable music making.

Oh yes, a final note: Never have so few given so much, to so many, in
the annals of music performance, as the always unheralded, long suffering
and often terrified PAGE TURNERS! Let us, at least, recognize and thank
them, one and all!