Review: Town Music’s new season opens

It’s a pleasure to hear chamber music at Town Hall. Players and audience being close to one another in a warm acoustical atmosphere makes for a satisfying experience, and of course, that’s how chamber music got its name: music played in a not-so-big room, a chamber, for a selected group of people.

Town Music’s programs for this season follow the mind-working of artistic director Joshua Roman. Now in a solo career, the young ex-principal cellist of Seattle Symphony is still interested in connecting all kinds of music and all kinds of audiences, but the line up of performers is a bit more classical and a bit less eclectic. The five concerts include recorder virtuoso Marion Verbruggen in a trio with Seattle’s Margriet Tindemans and Jillon Stoppels Dupree; Brooklyn Rider, the string quartet which has worked with YoYo Ma on his Silk Road Project; Biava Quartet with Roman joining them; Roman himself with pianist Helen Huang; and Thursday’s performers for Town Music’s opening concert, violinist Jun Iwasaki and pianist Grace Fong.

Iwasaki is now concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, Fong has won awards at several international piano competitions. Both of them attended the Cleveland Institute of Music with Roman.

The program was well-designed and lively: Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E-flat major, K. 380, followed by Paul Schoenfield’s lively “Four Souvenirs,” Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” and Saint-Saens’ Violin Sonata No.1 in D Minor, the last two works being notoriously difficult to play and full of spectacular fireworks.

It was the sort of program which would have appealed to a young crowd who were maybe not so informed about classical music, but it was mostly older heads in the audience and they enjoyed it just as much.

Schoenfield’s “Souvenirs” was the outstanding performance of the evening. The composer often seems to compose with a bubble of laughter inside him which comes out in the music if the players are inside it too. Iwasaki and Fong had the split-second timing essential to it: the energy, the syncopation, the vitality of the Samba, the smooth, soulful sexiness of the Tango and the nostalgic schmaltz of Tin Pan Alley. Only the Square Dance didn’t quite hit the mark, and that seemed to be due to Schoenfield rather than the performers.

Iwasaki’s technique was more than equal to the “Zigeunerweisen,” but he didn’t catch the sob, the emotion which swirls through this wild gypsy music. Where it should be irresitible, catching up the listener and carrying her with him, it wasn’t.

He has a big sound which can be soft and clear, or rich and full with depth, but too often he marred it by a steely forcing of the tone instead of letting it sing. Often he used more expansive bowing than warranted by the music, sacrificing nuanced phrasing.

The same style marred the Saint-Saens at times also, despite a fine beginning where the urgent feel came through with lovely tone; and a charming lilt to the second movement, light and clean.

Fong is a fine pianist I’d like to hear in solo recital. She was more than equal to all the technical hurdles in this program, playing without stress or banging on the keys, and with clear articulation in the Mozart. However, in the Mozart, she and Iwasaki took a modern approach which negated the elegant restraint of this 1781 work. I would have liked more sensitivity in their interpretations throughout the program.

There were no notes about the works in the program, not even the keys of the Mozart and Saint-Saens sonatas, unfortunate omissions I hope will be rectified next time. A little background often enhances the experience.

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