Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ray Chen with NCCO: Engagingly Affable but not Particularly Memorable

Last night violinist Ray Chen came to Herbst Theatre to continue his series of performances as Guest Concertmaster and soloist with the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO). Each half of his program coupled the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with a twentieth-century composition by an English composer. The concerto selection for the evening was Mozart’s K. 216 in G major.

Chen took an affable approach as both concerto soloist and leader. In the latter case his main commitment seemed to be to keep things moving, which included making sure that the middle Adagio movement did not drag through a morass of excess sentimentality. As a soloist he effervesced with the “show-off kid” spirit of the nineteen-year-old Mozart; and, if he kept the sentimentality under control, he was far more liberal with the virtuosic displays in his cadenza work. He was clearly having a good time up there on stage; and his pleasures seemed to spill over to his fellow musicians and, for the most part, the audience without too much difficulty.

Nevertheless, there was some sense that Mozart himself was being short-changed in this process. The greatest difficulty was that this concerto was played by an ensemble consisting entirely of strings. Mozart may have been sparing in his use of other instruments in K. 216, but he never failed to use them wisely and imaginatively. This particular concerto included two horns, two flutes (only in the middle movement), and two oboes (only in the outer movements). None of these instruments is ever given a superfluous note, and it is the ability to achieve just the right blend of sonorities that can make or break a conductor taking on any Mozart composition.

Since none of these instruments were available, Chen gave the horn parts to Principal Viola Anna Krueger and Principal Cello Michelle Djokic. The wind parts were taken by Associate Concertmaster Dawn Harms and Principal Second Violin Candace Guirao. This may have accounted for all of the notes on the score pages, but the rhetorical impact of contrasting sonorities was seriously undermined.

Similarly problematic was that Chen did not seem to pay much attention to Arnold Schoenberg’s conviction that “Mozart has to be considered above all as a dramatic composer” (as he put it in his “Brahms the Progressive” essay based on a talk he had prepared). It is not difficult to listen to the K. 216 Adagio and imagine Mozart “warming up” for some of those many poignantly dramatic moments that drive the narrative of his K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart probably had the same raging hormones of any other teenager, but in K. 216 he was already demonstrating how to turn them into heartfelt emotions through music. That technique would be critical to the intense emotional impact that K. 492 would later provide.

Thus, while Chen could be engaging in his approach to Mozart, the qualities that make even a piece as early as K. 216 truly memorable seemed to elude him. Some of this may have been the result of his being too occupied with virtuoso display. However, it was hard to shake the feeling that he had not yet really connected with what made Mozart tick. This was just as evident in his opening selection, the K. 138 divertimento in F major, which was certainly “diverting” enough but never really made the case that Mozart was never content with writing that would be “just background music.”

Some of the problems may have been a matter of tending to take the surface structure at face value. This was also evident in the twentieth-century selections. Chen devoted the first half of the program to Benjamin Britten’s Opus 10 set of variations on a theme by his teacher Frank Bridge. He introduced the piece by suggesting that each variation disclosed a different aspect of Bridge’s character. However, Chen overlooked the sorts of adjectives that Peter Laki quoted in his program notes: “integrity,” “energy,” “charm,” and “wit.” Those last two are particularly apposite, since we do not encounter them very often in the more “mature” Britten.

The fact is that the rhetoric of the variations encompasses a gamut that runs from rib-tickling to belly laughs. This is not to overlook any of the more sober or somber gestures but only to observe that, on the whole, this is highly spirited music. Thus, while Chen knew how to give all the notes in the score a proper account, his sense of a deeper level of expressiveness consistently came up short.

In the second half, Edward Elgar’s Opus 47 coupling of an introduction and allegro involved decidedly broader rhetorical strokes. Much of the score involves the interplay between a string quartet of the section leaders and the full ensemble, and Chen certainly knew how to convey the alternation of these two points of view. Nevertheless, the ensemble itself was a bit too low in numbers to pack the wallop one usually encounters in this piece. This is not to suggest that Elgar was hyperemotional, but he was clearly after some very sharp contrasts. Thus, while Chen was faithful to the score, as had been the case in the K. 216 concerto, that fidelity was not reflected effectively by the resulting sonorities.

On the other hand the sonorities of Chen’s encore selection could not have been more striking. He led an arrangement (presumably his own) of the first of the three pieces that Erik Satie called “Gymnopédie.” Satie wrote these as solo piano pieces with Spartan simplicity. Claude Debussy had previously orchestrated the piece that Chen had selected; but Chen emphasized that the encore would be an arrangement, rather than an orchestration. In the result any resemblance to Satie would have been purely coincidental. Chen’s approach involved a generous application of the thickest syrup that ever came out of John Williams’ kitchen, flying boldly in the face of any intentions Satie may have had for his piano composition. Any seismic tremors recorded that night could probably be attributed to Satie spinning in his grave.

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