Music in May

By Scott MacClelland

THE TWELTH ANNIVERSARY edition of Music in May, the annual chamber music festival founded by violinist Rebecca Jackson, sold out the Samper Recital Hall at Cabrillo College on the weekend. The first of two concerts, Saturday night, featured acclaimed violinist and new music advocate Jennifer Koh in a circumspect bramble for violin and piano titled Tocar (Touch) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and an obscure early string trio by Beethoven. The program note about the Saariaho, based on her own words, was opaque with mostly conceptual generalities and so few specifics that it thankfully left the music to fend for itself. But that didn’t turn out so well either. Its greatest virtue was brevity; seven minutes. The violin part dabbled in harmonics, portamento, bowing on two strings (double stops), and bowing on top of the bridge (“sul ponticello”) for squeaky metallic sounds—every technical trick you could imagine without ever condescending into what the violin does best: sing. The pianist, Thomas Sauer, faithfully followed the composer’s vision but in a decidedly supporting role contrary to the notes. He used the sustain pedal a lot, which proved to be the only source of warmth for the duration.   

String trios were the pieces Beethoven used to prepare for his launch in writing string quartets. (The examples of quartets by Haydn and Mozart actually intimidated the Bonn native in the 1790s.) But the greatest composer in history to go deaf muscled his way brashly even while honoring the classical models perfected before he came to town. With only three movements, missing a true slow movement, the polished reading lasted a full 25 minutes. Joining Koh were violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist Wilhelmina Smith.

Following the interval, at which attendees were invited to purchase copies of Jackson’s new book, Arben, a biography of her mentor, co-written with her father John Jackson, came Dvořák’s “Dumky” Piano Trio in E Minor, his last and greatest work in the form. Violinist Hee-guen Song and pianist Elizabeth Schumann joined cellist Jonah Kim for the most vivid and memorable performance of the evening. The work itself is on par with the great Dvořák masterpieces of his last decade. (During a subsequent phone call, Kim compared it to the composer’s cello concerto as “concerto lite.”) In fact, the six-movement piece is a cello concerto in disguise. And in Kim’s case, all the more so. He is a dominant artist in any context, musically and physically. Even his facial expressions were part of the show, and his colleagues on stage were loving his flirtatious glances. Yet, he is also a consummate chamber musician, sensitively alert to what his partners are doing.

The “Dumky” is as rich with detail as it is unselfconsciously organic. Each movement changes moods from thoughtful circumspection to wild exuberance, spirits of which inhabited all three players. But it did seem as though Kim had the deepest grasp on the work, that he had virtually memorized it even though its pages were in front of him on an iPad. At least his authority conveyed that impression. And, in the last movement, he did something I had never seen or heard before, bowing a glassy passage, without purchase on the strings, away from the bridge and above the fingerboard. In that later phone chat he told me he had made it up, finding it a natural complement to the “nature” elements the piece contains. And he gave it the name “wind machine,” a flautando (flute like) timbre that can only be achieved on string instruments.   

The standing ovation was punctuated with shouts of “bravo” and “bravi.”  

Photo by Scot Goodman