Psychologists and economists love to study the interplay among price, expectation, rarity and perceived value. We did our own experiment over the weekend and concluded that few things make a person happier than a free, or pay-what-you-can, concert performed by some of the region’s best musicians. The sour economy is undoubtedly a major attraction of a deeply discounted event, but I suspect that in these cases it had more to do with the marketable composers, the stepwise increase in awareness of the venues and, most of all, the distinguished reputation of the musicians themselves. Notably, the two shows drew maximum audience capacity.
The Emory Chamber Music Society’s noontime concerts at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, on the university campus, have built a strong following, and on Friday the fire marshal would not have been pleased. Every chair was taken, people stood in back and many were crammed on the aisle floors to hear Cecylia Arzewski play two supreme works for solo violin by J.S. Bach, the Partita No. 3 in E and the Sonata No. 3 in C.
Arzewski seems only to have grown in stature since she stepped down, in 2008 after 18 years, as concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has since expanded her teaching studio — some of her students, who play in the ASO, were in the audience — and she’s planning to record all six Bach partitas and sonatas at New York’s Academy of Arts and Letters, this spring, with a Grammy-winning producer at the control knobs. The Friday concert was one of several warm-ups for her recording sessions.
In Bach, Arzewski’s powerful style might be called “modern,” which is now a historical term in music, meaning: a lean, unfettered tone; a resistance to ornament or elaborate or thicken the line; and an emphasis on clarity and structure — all fueled by a monumental and universal nobility (rather than notions of historically informed performance). In our culture of Oprah and Facebook and 140-character tweets, where organizing your thoughts is not as important as the disclosure of startling personal information, Arzewski’s lucid and very proper Bach harks back to an era now lost.
You could tell she’s lived with Bach for most of her life, where not a phrase, not a bowstroke, has escaped consideration. In the E Major Partita, after nailing the treacherous three-string crossings in the “Preludio” — which was majestic and icy — she moved through the “Loure” by caressing and weighing each note, and introduced sweetness along the way. Her “Gavotte en rondeau” was perhaps the most delightful thing she played, nimble and a little coy.
The movements of the E Major Partita are built on dance rhythms — the loure, gavotte, menuet, gigue — but Arzewski resisted making them danceable, which forced them into a lofty, cerebral box; I missed hearing these works with a physical element. Still, the violinist’s vision is comprehensive, with few noticeable gaps in her approach, a most impressive display.
Her Bach style fit to a tee the more sober C Major Sonata, one of the pinnacles of the solo violin repertoire in its technical demands and subtlety. The opening Adagio was loaded with bite. Though it took her half a page to settle into the mighty Fugue, her authority grew with each added voice. Then the Largo, so hushed, almost prayerful, and a celebratory Allegro to close.
A few days before each date with the microphones in New York, Arzewski will preview the program in recitals at Spivey Hall, on March 5 and May 21.
On Sunday afternoon, another free concert series (donations accepted) opened its 2011 schedule: three sonatas for piano and cello by Beethoven, with pianist Robert Henry and cellist Charae Krueger.
Founded in 2006, Music on the Hill is a wonderful chamber music program at Northside Drive Baptist Church, where Jimmy Carter has been a deacon and with an arts-loving congregation that the pastor describes as “high-church Baptist.” In a city with a dearth of decent performance spaces and too little chamber music, Music on the Hill hosts strong local players in challenging repertoire, boasts an acoustically splendid small chapel and fills an essential gap. (Beethoven concert photos by Timothy Jones/Sound Foundations of Atlanta.)
In the series, Krueger and Henry are performing all five of Beethoven’s cello sonatas, with the second installment to come March 13. Both musicians are well known locally: she is principal cellist of Atlanta’s opera and ballet orchestras; he has performed as soloist with the Atlanta Symphony, among others. Both teach and perform at Kennesaw State University.
On Sunday they covered the two youthful sonatas, No. 1 in F Major and No. 2 in G minor, and one late sonata, No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102. Like other concerts in this light-filled chapel, it had a just-right vibe and a high expectation-to-value ratio.
Because Beethoven composed these sonatas for himself to perform at the piano, with a cellist, finding a proper balance between instruments can be tough. Henry, probably unlike the composer, was able to subdue his (sometimes domineering) part and forge an equitable collaboration. In the carefree F Major Sonata, with its witty and weighty Allegro movement and sparkling Rondo finale, he proved himself a colorist at the keyboard, although it often seemed as if he was battling the chapel’s sonically dingy and ill-focused Steinway six-footer.
It helped that Krueger has a strong musical personality with clear ideas and makes a big sound on her cello. The C Major Sonata, an angst-ridden late work, appears more balanced on paper, but the cellist had to really push her sound to compensate. She unspooled the melancholy cello theme in the Andante with emotional directness. The G minor Sonata also clicked, with the intimate air of two friends making music together … and with a few hundred people eavesdropping.
The concert opened with a little girl, Leilani Schroeder, in a poised and lovely performance of a Chopin waltz. At 11, she’s just tall enough to reach the pedals. It showed another virtue of Music on the Hill concerts: they are welcoming to children, with the front pew reserved for the most eager listeners. And Krueger and Henry also drew the largest crowd in Music on the Hill’s four-year history. The series keeps growing.