Monday, January 12, 2009

In Praise of Naumburg

I may have found a data point that runs contrary to my generally dismal view of music competitions and judges whose interests seem to conflict with what I have called "accountability to the music itself." The source of the data is the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation; and, because San Francisco Performances has an association with the Naumburg Foundation through which they present a recital by each year's Naumburg Competition winner, I have now been able to enjoy two thoroughly "music-based" performances. The first was in 2005 by soprano Sari Gruber; and the second was last night, when I heard 23-year-old cellist David Requiro at Herbst Theatre. I probably should not be surprised that I seem to enjoy Naumburg winners better than those who have won other prizes. Last night I learned that Robert Mann is the current Director of the Naumburg Foundation, the same Robert Mann whom I was extolling on Saturday for his communicative skills in a pedagogical setting. Most important among those skills is his ability to communicate about music, rather than just technique, assuming that technique can only be mastered once one understands the music to which it is being applied.

Requiro is a model example of an up-and-coming musician who appreciates the value of such understanding of the music he plays. Thus, while I often try to look for a unifying theme in a concert program, the primary asset of Requiro's selections was the breadth of repertoire over which he is willing to apply his understanding skills. On the historical time scale the program ranged from Ludwig can Beethoven in the past to William Bolcom in the present, with "stops along the way" for Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, and Gaspar Cassadó. This scope also demonstrated an ability to work with a variety of time scales, from the relatively brief and distinct Beethoven WoO 46 variations (on the "Bei Männern" duet from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Zauberflöte) and the comparatively short movements of Bolcom's capriccio through the "unified" three movements of the Debussy sonata to the symphonic-scale Brahms F major (Opus 99) sonata. In other words each of the works on the program required its own characteristic approach to execution. Not only did Requiro find that approach in each case; but also his rapport with his accompanist, Elizabeth DeMio, was so thorough that the results always constituted a well-conceived and shared vision.

I also appreciated that the program honored both "abstract" and "representational" approaches to composition. Thus, the symphonic plan of the Brahms sonata was nicely balanced by not only the explicit depictions of Cassadó and Bolcom but also the possibly "hidden program" of the Debussy sonata. (The program notes by Eric Bromberger neglected to mention that Debussy had considered titling this sonata "Pierrot fâché avec la lune" [Pierrot annoyed with the moon]. One has to wonder if this choice of title had anything to do with a reaction of Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, which had been composed about three years earlier. Debussy fâché avec Schoenberg?) Consequently, the wide diversity of performance challenges also made for an equally wide diversity of listening experiences. One could not ask for more of any concert program.

No comments: