Friday, March 30, 2018

Adventurous Recital Deserves Remembering

Cellist Edward Luengo (second from right) with (left-to-right) teach Jean-Michel Fonteneau and accompanists Amy Chiu and Kevin Lee Sun (photograph by Kevin Kennedy, from Luengo’s Facebook site)

Every now and then one encounters a student recital so imaginatively conceived and so confidently executed that it burns its way into mind’s long-term memory. Such was the case last night in the Osher Salon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where graduating senior Edward Luengo presented his end-of-term cello recital. With a repertoire that allowed for four musical partners and extended from the end of the eighteenth century to the first decade of the current one, Luengo provided himself with a richly diverse palette with which to exercise his technical and expressive skills, both of which were firing on all cylinders.

The major works in each half of the program offered a stimulating balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The second half was dominated by Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 (second) sonata in F major. Separated by two decades, one might say (at the risk of sounding too reductive) that the first of the cello sonatas (Opus 38 in E minor) is highly introverted, while Opus 99 is vigorously extroverted. There is even an energetic buzz to the pizzicato passages in the second (Adagio affettuoso) that seems to invite the listener into what might have been taken as a private space.

The fact is that each movement has its own characteristic set of personality traits. Working effectively with accompanist Kevin Lee Sun, Luengo knew how to mine each movement for its own individual traits and then tie them all together in his journey through the sonata’s four movements. This was a delightful reminder that, no matter how many times one has previously encountered this sonata, there will always be fresh ways to enjoy the listening experience.

In the first half of the program, on the other hand, Luengo served up a far less familiar undertaking. While many cellists tend to establish their twentieth-century chops by performing Zoltán Kodály’s Opus 8 sonata for solo cello, Luengo opted for his Opus 7 duo for violin and cello, composed during the previous year (1914). Structured in three movements, this duo is as much of a wild ride as is the cello sonata, drawing upon folk sources to explore new domains of modernist rhetoric.

Luengo was joined by violinist Maria van der Sloot, who initially had a bit of a problem mustering up the necessary energy to balance with Luengo. Within only a few minutes, though, the two were confidently established on a level playing field. The listening experience was probably a “first encounter” for most of the audience; and I suspect I was not the only one wondering why it took so long for me to become acquainted with this piece.

The program opened with the eighteenth-century offering, Ludwig van Beethoven’s WoO 46, the set of seven variations on the duet “Bei Männern, welch Liebe fühlen” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. Much of Mozart’s duet rhetoric was preserved in the interplay between cello and piano during the opening statement of the theme; however, even in his earliest works, Beethoven knew how to take his variations into unexpected regions. This demanded considerable virtuosity from both Luengo and his pianist, Amy Chiu. They may not have caught onto the many gestures of wit with which Beethoven spiced up his score, but their respective techniques were positively sparkling.

The most recent past was served up during the second half, which began with Guillaume Connesson’s 2008 suite, Les Chants de l’Agartha (the songs of Agartha, a mythical kingdom under the Mongolian desert). This selection made for an engaging complement to all of those imaginary beings lurking in Lera Auerbach’s performance of her own Labyrinth. However, Connesson was less cryptic in his approach to description, and each of his movements offered its own relatively brief account of an imagined setting.

The program concluded with “Encore,” composed in 2009 by Connesson’s colleague Jérôme Ducros. Composed in ternary form, the outer sections serve up large chunks of technically-demanding virtuosity taken to flamboyant extremes. The middle section allowed the cellist to catch his breath; but, ultimately, Ducros’ playful jab at concertizing ends up going on for too long. The opening section makes his point and could probably stand on its own just as well, if not better.

Luengo’s program also displayed his interest in French art song. The first half of his program included Pablo Casals’ arrangement of the first of three songs that Gabriel Fauré published as his Opus 7, “Après un rêve.” Calling this an arrangement is a bit generous. Casals left the piano part (played by Chiu) pretty much intact, having the cello follow the vocal line at the baritone level for the first verse and jumping an octave to the soprano level for the second.

The real encore that Luengo prepared was another French art song, Francis Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l’amour” (the paths of love). This was arranged for wind instrument and piano by Jacques Larocque. However, it is just as likely that Luengo followed Casals’ lead, since he again delivered the vocal line in two separate octaves, accompanied this time by Keisuke Nakagoshi. This selection amounted to an affectionate farewell from soloist to audience. Hopefully, this will turn out to be an au revoir, rather than an adieu!

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