Kernis work stands out in Chamber Music Society’s contemporary program

Fri Apr 03, 2015 at 1:16 pm
Aaron Jay Kernis's "Two Movements (with Bells)" was performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Thursday night.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Two Movements (with Bells)” was performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Thursday night.

The Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse is easily one of the most chic classical music venues in New York. Its vast windows provide panoramic skyline views, the room can easily be reconfigured for cafe seating, and almost every concert comes with a free glass of wine (or three).

For Thursday’s installment of “New Music in the Kaplan Penthouse” the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center used a more traditional row seating arrangement, which sacrificed hip ambience in favor of squeezing more patrons into the room. It’s hard to blame the organizers, as the room was at absolute capacity—quite an achievement for a concert made up entirely of new music.

“New” is a relative term for an organization that presents chamber music, and the inclusion of Leon Kirchner’s Piano Trio No. 1 from 1954 invited a raised eyebrow. To be fair, everything on the program was at least new to CMS, and Kirchner’s trio is a challenging and rewarding piece. It is a difficult work to sift; the first movement presents varied degrees of clashing energy, and the second struggles to break free of stasis. Pianist Gilles Vonsattel, violinist Arnaud Sussmann, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis gave an intelligent, technically proficient performance, but the meaning of the piece remained a mystery.

The only other item from the previous millennium was Jukka Tiensuu’s 1983 …kahdenkesken for piano four hands. The brief composition, performed by Vonsattel and Andrew Armstrong, leans heavily on maddening repetition of a few different figures to create its effects. Tiensuu manages to create both distance and claustrophobia at once with his writing, but the novelty of his highly gestural language wears off quickly.

Six selections of Jörg Widmann’s 24 Duos for Violin and Cello from 2008 were a mixed bag, but, with inspired advocacy by Sussmann and Canellakis, at their best were enchanting. Number 17, “Choral,” is a dark rumination, creaking and groaning through its slow progression. Number 21, “Valse bavaroise,” is a charming waltz, almost Viennese in character, but with a hint of gypsy melody to give it a more rustic feel. “Toccatina all’inglese,” number 24, is violently funny, and manages to pull off the neat trick of explicitly quoting the 007 theme without feeling like kitsch.

Derek Bermel’s Death with Interruptions (2014) was the headline act, by virtue of being a CMS co-commission and the only New York premiere on the program. This is a set of variations for piano trio (violinist James Ehnes joined Canellakis and Vonsattel) on a persistent, tugging theme. Bermel’s compositional skill is evident in the piece–he employs truly lyrical melody rather than relying on a series of effects, and explores a variety of tonal aspects, with colors changing like a rotating prism. It is an interesting piece to listen to, though it somehow did not feel communicative, sounding more like  a pleasant study than a finished performance piece.

The most effective work was Aaron Jay Kernis’s Two Movements (with Bells) for Violin and Piano, from 2007. The piece was written for Ehnes, and together with Armstrong he gave it a moving, virtuosic reading. The bells of the title are not literal, but the piano often hints at them, calling them in from a distance to accompany the violin.

Kernis’s writing is strikingly violinistic. His long, arching lines show a great level of comfort with the instrument’s lyrical voice, and his more fiery passages, while technically demanding, never seem to be awkward for the player. The result is breathtakingly expressive, working with the violin’s natural strengths rather than against them. Kernis’s earnest, straightforward tonality feels familiar, but not saccharine. The violin searches, wandering in the direction of a melody, calling to mind shades of Prokofiev in the opening strain of the second movement, “A song for my Father.”

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