Duo FAE displays singular verve and expressive power in American program

Thu Aug 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm
Duo FAE (pianist Katherine Petersen and violinist Charlene Kluegel) performed Wednesday night at Spectrum.

Duo FAE (pianist Katherine Petersen and violinist Charlene Kluegel) performed Wednesday night at Spectrum.

There’s an anecdote told by Police guitarist Andy Summers about the band’s first U.S. tour in 1978. On a bitter cold night they played at the Last Chance Saloon in Poughkeepsie in front of a crowd of four people. Summers remembers that they played a great show, with a sense of fun and freedom that had the manager raving that they should come back, despite the tiny turnout.

That story came to mind Wednesday night at Spectrum, where the excellent, young Duo FAE played a superb recital of 20th-century American music in front of a miniscule crowd—the audience tripled by intermission yet still could be counted on two hands. A classical violin and piano duo is never going to achieve the popularity of The Police, but as the career of violinist Charlene Kluegel and pianist Katherine Petersen progresses, those who heard them play may recall someday that they were there Wednesday night.

Spectrum is the type of place where a concert in front of a small audience can easily catch fire. It is small and homey—literally a living room, bookshelves stage left and rows of CDs stage right—with a Steinway concert grand and one of the finest acoustics in New York. Where other halls say they are intimate because the seats are few and the confines are close, Spectrum is a genuinely private space offering an almost private experience: musicians cannot help but play directly and responsively for the audience.

Kluegel and Petersen put together a strong program—William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag, Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 2, John Adams’ Road Movies and Gershwin’s Three Preludes in the virtuosic arrangements by Jascha Heifetz.

The two women tackled all with unsentimental verve, musical feeling and great technical skill. As a duo, they wield considerable power and play with precise phrasing. The rhythmic clarity in particular flattered the music, and brought out some fresh nuances in the pieces.

Bolcom’s rag is his own duo adaptation of the original piano composition, and the woody, grainy sound of the violin adds an acoustic nostalgia to the wistful expression, a sepia tone in sound that brings up evocative mental images of 19th century America. Bolcom’s rag was beautifully played by the duo.

The complex, faux-historical sound of the rag was an extraordinarily apt segue for Ives’ own exploration of lost historical memory. The musicians’ skill and confidence with rhythm stood out here as well: rhythm is vital in Ives, but his ideas frequently fall on the wrong foot and musicians commonly play them with a stiff self-consciousness, an exaggerated notion of Ives as primitive.

But he was a sophisticated composer, and hearing his rhythms played with such certainty, with the sensation that this is exactly how they were meant to be and that there’s nothing awkward about them, is rare. With Duo FAE’s sympathetic imagination and musical intelligence, Ives’ fragments of tunes and memories sounded completely integrated in an idiomatic and powerful performance.

The new work, Jared Miller’s Captive, has a distinctive concept but an unsuccessful execution, based on the idea of the violin as a prisoner and the piano as a prison. Miller, a current Juilliard student, takes a dramatic and narrative approach. There is quality material here and a thoughtful concept, but the music depends on one’s sympathy for the story, not the composing.

Kluegel retrieved a second violin, with the G string tuned down to F, for Road Movies (second movement). Adams’ difficult piece received tremendous playing, the clarity and physical strength of the rhythms again powerfully propelling the music forward. The landscape of the second movement, “Meditative,” was sonically beautiful, deep and haunting. The piece is a workout, and Kluegel seemed to show some fatigue in the B section of the final movement, but when the cause is this committed, it’s hard to find fault.

Heifetz’s arrangements of Gershwin’s marvelous Preludes are just as technically demanding for the violin but Kluegel recovered fully. Petersen, meanwhile, played with the same muscular swagger she conveyed over the whole evening.

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