Sunday, March 17, 2024

A Celebration of Strings to Open Mason House Season

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Cécilia Tsan, Kate Hamilton.


Aubrun, Hamilton, and Tsan play eight works by seven composers at Mason House

Mason House in West LA started its 2024 season with a concert featuring two of the series’ most familiar and cherished performers, violinist Ambroise Aubrun and cellist Cécilia Tsan. They are locally-based but global-class musicians, and there is really no reason ever to skip a concert that either is playing in. Here, however, they were joined by a violist new to Mason House, Kate Hamilton, also well-traveled and vastly experienced. Based on these performances, she shares Tsan and Aubrun’s marvelous ear for mixing and matching string tones.

Hamilton and Aubrun also perform and tour as Duo Novae, and together they played all five short pieces that took up the first half, among them host Todd Mason’s Duo for Violin and Viola. After intermission, Tsan joined Aubrun to play Bach, and then all three as a trio gave us the show’s two main courses, the one-movement Schubert String Trio in B-flat major D. 471, and the world premiere of Mason’s String Trio

Opening his pre-concert talk, LA Opus’ David Brown (right) said that Todd had challenged him to “find a common thread" among the seven composers and eight compositions featured in the concert, and the challenge led him on a fascinating sweep through eras of Western classical music history, from J. S. Bach’s time to the present day. Taking the composers chronologically rather than in performance order, we learned: 

… that the much-loved Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, has been arranged in at least 56 different ways from Bach’s original for two violins, strings and continuo (and not including the one we were to hear today)….

… about where in Franz Schubert’s brief and chaotic timeline he found time to compose (but not finish) this particular trio (when he was 19 and had just moved out of his “crowded and oppressive” family home, personal turmoil not betrayed by the calm, civilized discourse of the piece itself)…

.. that Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), now obscure as a composer, was a professor at the Vienna Conservatory who taught some of the most celebrated 20th century composers, including Enescu, Korngold, Mahler, Wolf, and Sibelius...

… that the Norwegian Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), whose piece was to close the first half, is also a rather neglected composer now, but in his lifetime was a celebrated violinist and conductor: his output included three symphonies… 

… that Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was incredibly prolific: when the Swedish company BIS took on the challenge of recording his entire output, it ran to 75 CDs’ worth, of which 11 were devoted to chamber works that are mostly unknown, including what we were to hear today…

… and that the inexhaustible 20th century Polish modernist Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020), known for music so jarring that it regularly winds up in horror films like The Exorcist and The Shining, turned toward a more tonal and romantic style in the late 1970s and continued to compose well into the 2010s.

Finally, we learned from Todd Mason (left)—speaking for himself as the only living composer on the program—that the Duo had been commissioned by Duo Novae, and that the Trio was written because his concert series has acquainted him with so many great string players.

This bounty of information foreshadowed a bounty of music and of styles, specifically the styles and techniques a violinist, a violist, and a cellist use to perform a wide range of compositions.

Sibelius, c.1891.
Each of the first six pieces lasted less than eight minutes, and the jumping between eras and style reminded me of when I played in student recitals during high school and college. In a recital, the pieces program themselves, and that was sort of true for this concert—if there was a common thread, it was the love by composers of string musicians, and the myriad ways players can serve composers’ artistic needs.

The first item was Sibelius’ Duo in C Major for Violin and Viola, JS 66 (1891), and its opening highlighted Aubrun’s violin singing plaintively over a steady, soft, liquid beat of arpeggios on Hamilton’s viola; as if he were walking alongside a river singing his song.

Penderecki, 2008.
Penderecki’s Ciaccona for Violin & Viola (2005) came next. Originally written in memory of Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope who died that year, it was later incorporated into the composer’s Polish Requiem. It vividly presented the violin as a conveyor of grief and yearning. Hamilton provided support in the form of murmurs, whispers, and gentle reminders. It was hard to listen to this piece and not visualize two grieving souls, working through loss together.

Nos 3, 4, 8 and 12 from Fuchs’ 12 Duos for Violin and Viola Op. 60 (1898) felt the most like what one would expect to hear at a recital—clever studies to showcase techniques and the qualities of each instrument. Of the four pieces, the third (#8 if you’re keeping score) intrigued me the most, as it gave Aubrun yet another opportunity to showcase his beautiful tone. Hamilton’s unerring rhythmic framing propelled the final, charming, #12.

Robert Fuchs.
Mason’s Duo was next. Although this concert was its LA debut, the Duo is already popular and has been included in concerts around the US, which is appropriate, because the piece feels a bit like a travelogue. Mason gave Hamilton her best opportunity up until this point in the concert to show off her gorgeous tone, her “liquid gold” as one reviewer put it.

But this piece was also ready to confront the listener, as one of its shifting moods. It felt dissonant with a purpose—to wake up the listener. And it’s also a showcase for two virtuosos, and it makes perfect sense that violinists and violists around the country have been excited to play it.

Johan Halvorsen.
Halvorsen’s Sarabande with Variations (1897) was almost jarringly familiar after these unfamiliar explorations. The piece is based on a theme by Handel—the one that haunts Stanley Kubrick’s masterful Barry Lyndon. After immersing us in the languor of the dirge-like theme, in the ensuing 11 variations Halvorson creates a maze of challenging virtuoso moments that Aubrun and Hamilton navigated with style and skill.

With the Bach that opened the second half of the program, I was again reminded of the period of my life attending and playing in recitals. The three movements of the “Bach double,” as everyone called it, were each perfect showcases for strings fast and slow, joyous and sedate. Aubrun and Tsan played only the central Largo, which includes one of Bach’s most beautiful melodic lines.

It was interesting to hear this highly familiar piece played by a spare ensemble of two voices from different parts of the scale, in this new arrangement for violin and cello by cellist Cicely Parnas (right). The contrasts between their instruments illuminated different qualities of Bach’s writing. This movement can have a hypnotic, even soporific effect, but heard this way it seemed more formal and abstract, allowing us to hear the voices more independently. The word in my notes for this performance was “painterly,” meaning I could hear the brushstrokes. It made something old hat sound new.

Schubert, by Klimt.
After the Bach, all three musicians took to the Mason House stage to conclude the concert. Schubert’s Trio in B-flat was completely satisfying as a kind of midpoint between Classical charm and craft and the more passionate feelings and images that early Romanticism evokes.

Aubrun again amazed me here, but with a different skill—his ability to pull back, to shave a little bit from the bright, singing tone he used to help fill the room during the duos, and make more space for music in which the spotlight was intended to be shared equally.

That quality of musicians listening to one another and making intuitive small adjustments was most in evidence in the Schubert. Being able to perceive this interplay is one of the key pleasures of hearing chamber music in the small performance space of Mason House. As the Schubert wound down, Aubrun, Hamilton, and Tsan played ever more quietly, leaving each moment that much more exposed, until finally ending in unison, on a downbeat so soft it sounded like a breath.

After receiving grateful applause, they returned to take us on another journey entirely in Todd Mason’s String Trio, an acute reflection of the anxieties of now, which began harshly and spun into a kind of chase scene, each instrument running to a rhythmic pattern of 16th notes, making brief sonic gestures, two or three notes, before rejoining the unsettling, unpredictable flow.

Then, as if finding each other in a safe place, the running stops, and lyrical passages begin, led mostly by Aubrun, wailing laments gradually coming under control, allowing the three voices to come alive together and achieve a kind of peace and clarity. Then, with about a minute to go in this 11-minute piece, the slashing and running resumed but with a slightly different orientation—excited, almost giddy, accelerating toward what sounded like home.

Altogether this program was quite a workout for Aubrun, Hamilton and Tsan, packed with music that stretched their talents in so many directions, both artistically and technically. Nonetheless, these musicians proved to be the perfect vessels for the artistry of composers from the 18th to the 21st centuries. 


Mason House Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, January 20, 2024. 
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Sibelius, Penderecki, Fuchs, Halvorsen, Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Cicely Parnas: artist website.

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