Tuesday, November 21, 2017

USC Rising Stars at “The Interludes” in Torrance

David J Brown

An audience less decimated by pre-Thanksgiving preoccupations and planning than might have been feared enjoyed a longer and more wide-ranging program than usual in November’s Saturday afternoon “The Interludes” concert at First Lutheran, Torrance, in the series promoted by Classical Crossroads Inc. Violinist Annelle Gregory, ‘cellist Benjamin Lash, and pianist Somang Jeagal were described as “Three Rising Stars from the USC Thornton School” but in truth their stars seem already to have risen pretty far, to judge by their bios and websites, not to mention their performances on this occasion. 

Annelle Gregory
First up was Ms. Gregory tout seul, delivering an account as virtuosic and impeccable in intonation as you could hope for of the third of Eugene Ysaÿe’s six late Sonatas for Solo Violin Op.27; this one – along with No.6 the only single-movement sonatas of the set – is entitled “Ballade” and dedicated to Georges Enescu. To my ears it has some kinship with the Rumanian composer’s haunting, modally tinged sound-world, and Ms. Gregory with great skill surmounted its challenges (including much fearsome double-stopping) while still projecting the work with the fluid, quasi-improvisatory quality it demands

And then, “something completely different”, to borrow from Monty Python: a world première, no less, and introduced in person by its composer, the German Benedikt Brydern. A Bavarian in Paris was, he said, the winner of a competition organized by Ms. Gregory, and it proved a deft and witty little piece – all over in less than four minutes – that under her fingers and those of Somang Jeagal turned on a dime between romantic reverie and honky-tonk, with smiling nods and tips of the hat from Gershwin, Piazzolla, and Django Reinhardt. 

Somang Jeagal.
The final item from these two performers was the first movement, Moderato nobile, of Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Op.35, in an arrangement for violin and piano, presumably by the composer. While Ms. Gregory clearly loves the concerto and projected the solo part with skill and relish, I was left wondering… why, when there are so many wonderful purpose-written violin/piano works within (and outside) the repertoire? Shorn of Korngold’s scintillating orchestration, even in Mr. Jeagal’s expert hands some of the accompaniment sounded awkward. I would love to hear Ms. Gregory play the work as it’s meant to be heard, with an orchestra… and all of it. 

Her place on the podium was then taken by Mr. Lash for Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No.5 in D Op.102 No.2, written in 1815 on the cusp of Beethoven’s celebrated “third period”, and as startling a mix of terse concision and somber brooding as anything the composer wrote. I was pleased to note the proper observation of the first movement’s exposition repeat, and particularly impressed by the concentrated unanimity and observation of Beethoven’s careful markings of piano to pianissimo, and back, and back again, with which Mr. Lash and Mr. Jeagal played the protracted link between the slow movement and finale. 

Benjamin Lash.
Then came another of the (to me) new discoveries for which particularly I relish these series of chamber music concerts in the South Bay. In a concentrated spell of CD listening to much Chopin recently, I'd entirely overlooked the relatively early Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C Op.3 B.41, “pour Piano & Violoncello” as it says on the score. That stated primacy for the piano is clearly right, from the flourishes, answered by espressivo 'cello musings, that introduce the piece, through the bravura piano part in the Alla Polacca itself, with the ‘cello doggedly keeping pace with the ever more teeming showers of figuration from its companion. 

Finally it was Mr. Jeagal’s turn to leave the platform for the return of Ms. Gregory to perform with Mr. Lash the arrangement for violin and ‘cello of Halvorsen’s Passacaglia: Duo for Violin and Viola after Handel's Suite No. 7 in G minor for Harpsichord. Amazingly, this was the third time we’d encountered the work in less than six months of chamber concert-going in the area. This performance, somewhat swifter than the previous two we’d heard, reaffirmed for me the greater power of the arrangement for ‘cello than the original for viola, and demonstrated again what a perfect recital-ender it is. Ms. Gregory and Mr. Lash proved more than equal to all the Passacaglia’s technical demands, relishing its almost deliriously resourceful deployment of every trick in string players’ books. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, November 18, 2017.
Photos: Annelle Gregory: http://annelleviolin.com/; Benjamin Lash: https://www.benjaminlash.net/; Somang Jeagal: The Korea Times.

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