Monday, May 22, 2017

Young virtuoso wows the SBCMS Patrons’ Concert

REVIEW: Ray Ushikubo plays Chopin, Beethoven, Suk and Wieniawski

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Ray Ushikubo
Having nothing more than a layman’s notion of how arms, hands, and digits work as biological engineering, I wondered at points during this recital whether the training and practice needed to excel at violin or piano are inimical to what is required for the other instrument. Given 15-year-old Ray Ushikubo’s remarkable prowess both as a pianist and violinist, will he have at some point to curtail the keyboard so as to develop further his violin skills, or vice versa? I hope not, but should it prove necessary, then his future as a virtuoso of whichever is his chosen instrument must be assured.

From the start of the SBCMS’s celebratory end-of-season Patrons’ Concert, the breadth of Mr. Ushikubo’s musicianship was clear in an account of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major Op.61 that not only embraced both the pianistic accuracy and wide dynamic range the work requires, but just as importantly the long-range planning for tempo relationships and maintenance of underlying pulse needed to sidestep the pitfalls of the work’s length and discursiveness.

These qualities were yet more evident when he turned to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.14 in C-sharp minor Op.27 No.2. The Moonlight’s celebrated opening slow movement is marked Adagio sostenuto, but his approach to it entirely avoided the kind of torpor-inducing crawl that can sometimes follow an over-literal aim at timeless profundity. Not only did he keep the movement alive and in motion, but his strict observation of the attacca into the following Allegretto, coupled with a quite measured view of that tempo, ensured continuity between these first two movements where the wrong kind of jolt can sometimes happen. And then the final Presto agitato was indeed just about as fast as human fingers can manage, keeping thoroughly at bay any audience dozing tendencies on a very warm Sunday afternoon.

Dr Jason Lo
The other (relatively) large work was also by Beethoven, his Violin Sonata No.1 in D major Op.12 No.1, and for it and the remainder of the recital the soloist duly relinquished keyboard for violin, his place at the piano-stool being taken by Dr. Jason Lo. Here, I wasn’t quite as won over as I had been by Mr. Ushikubo’s pianism. For one thing, the tempo of the first movement (no exposition repeat taken) seemed too slow for Allegro con brio, and judged by the highest standards his violin tone, though brilliantly incisive, was to my ears just a little hard and undifferentiated. The theme-and-variations second movement, however, was led off at just the right tempo by Dr. Lo, whose unobtrusive excellence came into its own in the expansively skirling piano writing of the minor-key third variation, a relatively early (1798) example of Beethoven’s endlessly surprising and wonderful variation-writing.

The duo concluded with a couple of what the late great English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham would have termed “lollipops”, both from composers only a handful of years older than Mr. Ushikubo when they were written. The first of Josef Suk’s Six Piano Pieces Op.7, subtitled Love Song, was composed in 1891, but in its arrangement for violin and piano it sounded, even more than the piano solo original, as if it was prefiguring the accompaniment to some Golden Age Hollywood scene of Bette Davis sweeping down a grand staircase in a ball gown. 

Finally, Wieniawski's 1853 Polonaise brillante No.1 Op.4, which also exists in a version with orchestral accompaniment and is sometimes titled Polonaise de Concert, formed a neat and no doubt entirely intentional closing of the circle with the similarly nationalistic concert opener by his illustrious Polish predecessor. One of those “So that’s what that’s called…” pieces, its pyrotechnics, including some stratospherically high fortissimo double-stopped octaves, were handled by Mr. Ushikubo with a dazzling display of virtuoso aplomb that had the SBCMS audience on its feet and cheering. Let’s hope he can be heard here again in future seasons, as pianist, violinist, or both.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Saturday, May, 2017
Photos: Ray Ushikobo: AU Photography; Jason Lo.

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