By Scott MacClelland
JONAH KIM, the new principal cellist of the Santa Cruz Symphony, sold out the house in his auspicious recital debut at Cabrillo’s Samper Recital Hall. And well he should have. The man could have an exclusively solo career if he wanted it.
Santa Cruz is blessed with a concentration of musical talent that would be the envy of most California counties. Yet the Santa Cruz Symphony seems to have captured the best of the bunch as evidenced by the quality on show in Sunday’s program of chamber music by Brahms and Schumann. The concert capstone was Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat for which Kim was joined by Symphony concertmaster Nigel Armstrong and Symphony conductor Daniel Stewart in his capacity as a professional violist. Equally on that level was pianist Elizabeth Dorman who, like Kim, played the entire program.
Kim and his cello become a single entity in concert. He is an intensely physical and emotional performer, with a full range of facial expressions to match his immersion into the soul and spirit of the music, making him a pleasure to watch as well as to hear.
Yet as an orchestral player he subordinates his extravagant personal experiences to the team. In that case, what you see is his confidence and authority.
The concert began with the second of the two Brahms cello sonatas, the Op. 99 in F. Kim’s bravura playing stunned the audience which erupted in applause after the first movement. But the Adagio affettuoso second movement was where all the sweet seduction occurred, its principal melody revealing Kim’s gorgeous sonorities. The Allegro passionato third movement, a scherzo in all but its 2/4 meter, reignited the boisterous audience, this time with added cheers. Kim smiled, held up his left index finger and mouthed the words ‘one more,’ referring to sonata’s final Allegro molto. At last, we few holdouts joined the affirmation of the crowd.
Kim offered a few engaging comments before performing the three Fantasy Pieces by Schumann, promising that they “are very difficult, just to let you know.” Not only that, but they were listed in the program flyer as Op. 12, which is a set of eight pieces for piano alone. (These three pieces are known as Op. 73.)
Brahms’ earlier Sonata in E Minor followed the interval. Anyone waiting for an affecting slow movement must still be wondering what happened. In fact the piece has none. Instead the middle of its three movements is, in effect, a scherzo—literally a “quasi menuetto”—plus trio. (The affecting melody actually opened the first movement.) The fugal finale imparted a tone of solemnity.
Some in the audience may have attended the Santa Cruz Chamber Players a week earlier during which they heard Schumann’s more frequently performed Piano Quintet in E-flat, which, like the piano quartet, dates from 1842.
Setting up for the piano quartet, the stagehand produced another cello in a cradle. When the four musicians were ready to begin the Schumann quartet, Kim explained that the second cello was needed for a single note–a pedal point B-flat on the C string that ends the third movement. Then ensued a masterful reading that matched Rebecca Jackson’s Music in May in setting the high bar for classical chamber music in Santa Cruz County. The integration of the four instruments is breathtaking as themes and mottos are tossed about with random precision. The second movement Scherzo (with two trios) sparkles like some of Mendelssohn’s fairy music. The third movement opens with a big and quite irresistible melody, which later is taken up by the violin and later still the viola. The contrapuntal final Vivace is distinguished by a brash three-note theme–literally harvested from the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony–that drives the piece toward its inevitable triumph.
An unquenchable standing ovation, with whistles and cheers, gave the four fine artists the reward they had earned.