Chamber Music Society fully in the groove with percussion and piano program

Fri Jan 27, 2017 at 2:48 pm
Michael Brown performed his Sonata-Fantasy for Two Pianos with Gilbert Kalish at Thursday's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert.

Michael Brown performed his Sonata-Fantasy for Two Pianos with Gilbert Kalish at Thursday’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert.

Whether it was key-operated hammers or mallets in a player’s hands, percussion ruled at Lincoln Center’s Rose Studio Thursday night, as two pianists and two marimba/vibraphonists served up a lively selection of recent works and a modern classic.

Billed as “New Music,” the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presentation featured works dating from 2008 to 2013—still pretty new, in the grand scheme of chamber music–by Alejandro Viñao, Steve Reich, and relative newcomer Michael Brown. 

But the concert reached back nearly half a century for the newest-sounding music of the evening, Luciano Berio’s densely fascinating Linea for Two Pianos, Marimba, and Vibraphone, composed in 1973.

The program, a concise affair lasting about 70 minutes with no intermission, was performed twice in the same evening to accommodate more listeners in the tiny rehearsal studio.  The later repeat was to include a presentation of the American Composers Forum’s Champion of New Music award to pianist Gilbert Kalish.  

Percussionists spend a lot of time trying to persuade people that they’re more than just music’s rhythm section, but they’re also not above embracing that role, and playing with it, in works like Viñao’s Book of Grooves for Two Marimbas (2011).

Marimba players Ayano Kataoka and Ian David Rosenbaum opened Thursday’s program with a movement from that piece, “Dance Groove Drifting,” that exemplified the composer’s definition of a “groove”  as “a pattern or sequence…[that creates] in the listener the desire to move, or dance, or toe-tap…”

A talented toe might indeed tap the syncopated groove Rosenbaum laid down to open the piece, but the “drifting” grooves generated by Kataoka with her counter-rhythms would require all ten toes and then some. The agile players coaxed out of the fray all manner of jazzy riffs and harmonies, along with glimpses of the composer’s Argentine heritage.

The two malleteers were joined for the Berio piece by Brown, who proved an able pianist as well as composer, and Kalish, who has nothing left to prove.

Beginning with a simple atonal melodic line (linea in Italian), of narrow compass and in plain quarter notes, the foursome generated a flurry of fantastic variations on it. Highlights included marimba player Kataoka leading a delicious scherzando section and the grandfatherly Kalish suddenly unleashing an assault of crockery-smashing cluster chords.  

The mallet players demonstrated their not-just-rhythm talents with a tonal palette ranging from hard staccato shots to a barely-there fog of sound.  The pianists’ fingers sounded wonderfully alive even in the gauziest passages.  All four players combined seamlessly to realize Berio’s most delicate or dazzling effects. Whether in rapid dialogue or massive chords, the group’s ensemble was exacting. And in the piece’s final moments, along came about the last thing one would expect from this composer: a groove.

There were grooves galore in Brown’s Sonata-Fantasy for Two Pianos, performed with verve by the generation-skipping duo of Brown and Kalish. Errol Garner met Darius Milhaud in the first movement, as ever-shifting rhythms and robust two-piano sonority kept the ear amused despite a mezzo-forte dynamic as level as an iTunes track.

In contrast, the slow movement painted a Debussyan scene of layered haze dotted with little exclamations, horn calls, and snatches of melody.  The players enhanced the effect by reaching inside their instruments for plucked highlights and stroked washes of sound.

The sonata closed with a pompous march à la Prokofiev, drolly interrupted by changes of meter and a chorale-like interlude, leading to an energetic, clattery coda. Composed for, and as a souvenir of, the summer festival Pianofest, the piece came off as a salute to this most remarkable of music-making contraptions.

The back-to-basics ethos seems to have affected even the trailblazer Steve Reich in the fast-slow-fast movement scheme and classical title of his 2013 work, Quartet for Two Pianos and Two Vibraphones.  But as the composer observed in a program note, the word “quartet” in his oeuvre denotes not bowed strings but two pianos and percussion, the core group in many of his compositions.

Reich also noted that the piece called for “ensemble virtuosity,” and plenty of that was on display as Brown, Kalish, Kataoka and Rosenbaum joined forces to pump out Latin-sounding rhythms interrupted by precisely-timed pauses that were all part of the first movement’s intricate math.  Harmonically the music had a jazz flavor, especially in the lushly stacked final chord.

Debussy’s underwater cathedral gurgled again in the slow movement, with the sustain pedals of pianos and vibraphones creating an ear-boggling, undulating sea of tone. The blurry sound of bells across the depths from the vibes (or was it the pianos?) was ravishing.

Continuing the Classical analogy, the last movement started like a scherzo, all start and stop and changes of meter, and finished like a finale, settling into a bumpy piano groove with vibraphone tunes woven through it. While the male performers kept a fairly businesslike demeanor, percussionist Kataoka charmingly caught the dance fever as she and the gents drove the piece to its exuberant conclusion.

The next presentation of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will be works of Brahms and Fauré 5 p.m. Sunday at Alice Tully Hall.; 212-875-5788.



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