The Douglas and Inyoung Boyd Foundation and The Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers University present A Classical, Jazz, and Chamber Music Extravaganza in ReviewThe Douglas and Inyoung Boyd Foundation and The Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers University present A Classical, Jazz, and Chamber Music Extravaganza Min Kwon and Fred Hersch, piano; Yoon Kwon, violin; Jonathan Spitz, cello; Conrad Herwig, trombone; Timothy Cobb, double bass; Choong-Jin (CJ) Chang, viola Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY October 6, 2014
Every so often, a leading conservatory or the music department of a university will book one of the leading New York recital halls for the purpose of presenting their talented, hardworking faculty in concert. This serves the double purpose of providing reward in the form of a major public performance, and good advertising for the faculty and institution, who may attract even more students. On October 6, 2014, it was the turn of Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. A large, affectionate crowd traveled from New Brunswick, New Jersey, and were treated to an unusual programming idea, very well played.
The theme of the first half of the concert was mostly tango or tango-inspired, whether stylized by a classical composer, as in Samuel Barber’s Hesitation Tango from his Souvenirs suite, briskly and beautifully played by Min Kwon and Fred Hersch in its original four-hand guise, or by a jazz composer (Mr. Hersch himself) in his Tango Bittersweet, stylishly rendered for piano trio by sisters Min and Yoon Kwon and Jonathan Spitz.
Mr. Hersch’s well-known affinity for Belle Epoque French music was evident in his lush arrangement of Gabriel Fauré’s song Après un rêve (After a dream), which didn’t fit the tango theme, but whose original words are a translation of a Tuscan folk poem about a lover waking in the dark and begging the illusions of a dream of his/her beloved to return. This was gorgeously played by Mr.Hersch and Yoon Kwon, whose playing all evening had the extra measure of brilliance and star quality that so few have, and did not exclude yearning or lyricism. The pair followed with Nove de Julho (Ninth of July), a composition by Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934). The day is a holiday in Sao Paulo state, Brazil, for the constitutionalist revolution of 1932. The classically-trained Nazareth championed the “Brazilian tango,” lest everyone think the dances could only originate in neighboring Argentina. Mr. Hersch played one of his own solo compositions, Heartsong, in which clever rhythmic dislocations, cushioned in complex added-tone harmony, propel the melody to a driving climax, which then subsides.
The hardest working pianist of the evening however was Min Kwon, the chair of keyboard studies at Rutgers. Her liquid tone and seamless phrasing made every piece from the arrangements to Schubert’s Trout Quintet a joy to hear. She was a poised, sometimes humorous, and always gracious colleague.
Two arrangements (Argento: Argentinian Dance #2, and Poulenc: Improvisation #15 Hommage à Edith Piaf, both originally for piano) by jazz composer Bill O’Connell (Rutgers faculty) for trombone and piano constituted perhaps the least convincing element of the program. The trombone’s intonation didn’t always match the piano, and I am not referring to intentional bent or “blue” notes or the like. The volume of this very “present” instrument didn’t accord well with the established palette of piano and strings.
Two arrangements and one composition were included by Grammy award-winning composer Robert Livingston Aldridge, who is also on the Rutgers faculty and director of the music department. He was present at the concert, apparently on his sixtieth birthday. On the first half of the program, was his Bossa-Habanera-Jig, a witty romp through the three dances. On the second half, after Schubert’s Trout Quintet, was his arrangement for the same piano quintet forces of Schubert’s epic ballad/song Erlkönig, in which a father gallops a horse swiftly through a dark forest with his young son on his lap. The son is being seductively lured by the supernatural Erlking. If he gives in, he will die. At first the father is doubtful, but he quickly realizes the seriousness of the boy’s pleas, racing even faster to reach an inn, but it is too late. In his arms, the child lies dead. If you wonder how such a story can even be told without its vocal part, all you have to do is hear this arrangement, in which the characters of the instruments all paint the story vividly. The rendition was fiery and convincing.
Prior to this Erlkönig, and constituting the majority of the second half, was indeed the so-called Trout Quintet by Schubert, whose fourth movement is a set of variations on what had been his “greatest hit song” composed two years earlier. The quintet was written for home music making in the Austrian alpine resort town of Steyr, for an amateur cellist who, according to contemporary comment could “barely negotiate” the cello part. No such worries here, however. All the players had technique to spare, and lavished it on this jovial work. I could have used a little more Gemütlichkeit, homey ease, perhaps not so driven, and with more contrast. There wasn’t enough pianissimo, but the sheer joy of their performance was convincing, and they looked collegially at each other, truly relishing their musical (and academic) partnership.
One encore, another Aldridge arrangement of Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow was ecstatically played by the Kwon sisters, the violin’s final notes becoming even more ethereal, higher and higher, a perfect ending.
How very lucky are the students of such a fine music department to have these (and I’m sure many other) artists to inspire them.