Chamber Music Society shows how it’s done with all-Mozart season opener

Wed Oct 18, 2017 at 1:20 pm
Pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung performed in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's season-opening Mozart program Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall.

Pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung performed in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s season-opening Mozart program Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall.

What better way for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to open its 48th season than with a celebration of Mozart, one of the founding fathers of classical chamber music? Tuesday night’s program offered a snapshot of the meteoric master at his peak, with music exclusively from 1787—the year of Don Giovanni, a year after Le Nozze di Figaro, and a year before the “Great” G minor and “Jupiter” symphonies.

Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung started the program with a husband-and-wife rendition of the four-hand Sonata in C Major (K. 521). On the top half of the keyboard, Bax showed an excellent, idiomatic touch—firm, but not overly aggressive, with enough nuance to bring out softer tones and achieve a real legato. Chung’s lighter, more delicately sensitive approach brought out warm colors in the bottom register. After a pleasantly tripping Allegro, the two found soothing calm in the Andante; and though they rushed a bit in the Allegretto finale, they at least rushed together, capturing the comfortable rather than ecstatic cheer of the music.

Bax stayed on for what proved to be the highlight of the night, a charming, crisp performance of the Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano (K. 526). Paul Huang’s violin playing was lithe and bright, with more warmth in his tone than many players tend to allow themselves in Mozart. In the Andante he showed the spirit of a concerto soloist, singing out his tender phrases while Bax followed perfectly. The pianist lost his fingers a bit in the runs of the closing Presto, yet the pair perfectly conveyed the jaunty spirit of the syncopated rhythms with their stylish playing. Huang’s gentle skewing of the bar line was almost Kreislerian, playful but never excessive.

The evening closed with the String Quintet in C Major (K. 515), featuring violinists Ani Kavafian and Huang, violists Yura Lee and Matthew Lipman, and cellist Mihai Marica. The piece begins with one of those classic Mozartean opening statements, announcing itself with an amiable arpeggio over running eighth notes in the supporting voices. The mesh of the ensemble was superb in the early going, producing rich colors, albeit with some suspect intonation.

In the later movements, however, rough edges began to show—most of them due to Kavafian, who seemed challenged by the first violin part. Her vibrato sounded choked, and unsure bow control led to a rigid sound with unwelcome surface noise. This unfortunately overshadowed the fine playing of the rest of the ensemble, particularly from Lee, who showed a lovely, blooming sound in the Andante.

Taking the stage before the concert, the indefatigable Wu Han, CMS’s co-artistic director, gave an animated opening-night speech, boasting of an expanding audience, a balanced budget, a growing endowment, and in Alice Tully “a glorious hall that won’t need any renovation at all!”—a cheeky jab at the next-door neighbor, David Geffen Hall, whose massive renovation project was just called off.

Han has good reason to be proud: while its sister organizations make headlines with their organizational struggles, CMS has been a model of consistency, presenting well-balanced programming with excellent artists and routinely drawing full audiences. Perhaps Han will be willing to share her winning formula with some of her peers.


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