Passion at the Piano: Joyce Yang at Duke Performances

Joyce Yang. Her playing is equally showy. Photo: Larry Ford.

Joyce Yang. Her playing is equally showy. Photo: Larry Ford.

These sections taken from my review published 1/21/13 in the online journal CVNC.

Duke Performances began the spring half of its recital series in Reynolds Theater with the surprising young Korean-born pianist Joyce Yang. If you think of “piano recital” as a not-so-exciting form of musical concert, Ms. Yang’s performance would disabuse you of this pallid notion. Yang’s passionate engagement with the music rises at times to erotic display…..

The evening opened with Beethoven’s sparkling Sonata No. 18 in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3, “The Hunt.” I don’t think I’d heard it in its entirety since I was a child and the old Artur Schnabel recording was in heavy rotation at my parents’ house. Yang’s interpretation, while forceful and crisp, bubbles with delight as the musical motifs chase each other up and down the keyboard. After frolicking all over the countryside, she took a deep breath, and blistered the ivory on the final movement, presto con fuoco….

Joyce Yang. Photo: Oh Seuk Hoon.

Joyce Yang. Photo: Oh Seuk Hoon.


Belcea Quartet Plays Late Beethoven at Duke

After the exciting, edge-blurring jazzgrass music of the Bela Fleck/Marcus Roberts Trio quartet, heard earlier in the week, the strictly classical Belcea Quartet initially seemed…a little staid. Fresh from Carnegie Hall, the Belcea played an all-Beethoven program of late works, as the quartet comes to the end of a long cycle of study and performance of Beethoven’s entire quartet oeuvre. The Chamber Arts Society/Duke Performances presentation in Reynolds Theater was well attended, but not by adventurous youth. Perhaps that accounted for the notable lack of buzzy anticipation.

Belcea Quartet, photo Duke Performances.

Led by the redoubtable Romanian-born Corina Belcea (b. 1975; she founded the quartet while still a student at London’s Royal College of Music, and is its only remaining original member), the program began with String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130. This is the piece that originally ended with what quickly became known as the Grosse Fugue (op. 133)–and that is how the Belcea rendered it. Beethoven’s friends told him at the time, the Grosse Fugue overwhelms the first five movements, and should be replaced with something more suitable. He did that, but we were privileged to hear for ourselves why it was a good idea. The Grosse Fugue is so magnificent and complex, it is much better off alone.

The playing initially seemed arid as No. 13 unfolded. The sound was very clear, but dry somehow, and with an uncomfortable edge. In his review of the first of the two Carnegie Hall concerts, which included op. 130, James Oestreich described Belcea’s violin as having an “astringent edge,” which seems accurate–clean, but with a puckering, drawing quality, rather than an enveloping warmth. Yet when the Grosse Fugue began, that very slight tightness gave way to great flexibility as the strings wound along the fantastic routes of the motifs as they lead and follow, reverse and cross each other throughout their transformations. While the mind deploys itself among the patterns, the heart goes straight to the mysteriously emotional quality of the music. Where the playing of op. 130 felt held back, over-ordered, that of the Grosse Fugue expressed within the music’s intricate structure all the freedom of intense familiarity.

As grand as the Grosse Fugue is, it is a puny thing next to the enormous String Quartet no. 14 in C-sharp Minor, op. 131, which the Belcea gave all the passion reserved from No. 13. There’s no neat classicism here, with four or five easily definable movements. No. 14 has seven parts, but they’re not separable. Beethoven was totally deaf when he wrote this–yet he put in so much sound that it is hard to believe that a mere four stringed instruments make it all. He completed it in 1826, a year before his death–but it sounds almost modern (pre-minimalism modern), as well as tortured, transcendent and capital R Romantic. It takes up your soul, bellowing and grappling, and wraps it like Ulysses wrapped the bag of winds. Then, with a few swift final chords, the cords are slashed and the spirit rises roaring.

No encore is possible after this, or even desirable. The musicians could barely stand to bow, and after the third curtain call, we all staggered out, replete with music.

Seamless Join: JazzGrass with Bela Fleck and The Marcus Roberts Trio

Bela Fleck, photo courtesy Duke Performances.

Duke Performances brought a jazz concert to a right-sized community venue again on November 8, when the  Carolina Theatre hosted the fabulous quartet of  Bela Fleck and The Marcus Roberts Trio. The main floor was full, and the crowd flowed up into the second balcony to hear banjo master Fleck jamming a delicious, lyrical patois of jazzgrass with pianist Roberts, bassist Rodney Jordan, and percussionist Jason Marsalis.

The jazz band members and Fleck encountered each other first at the Savannah Music Festival. After a jam session, they decided to try to make some music together–to try for a real, collaborative mixing from the wells of jazz and bluegrass. The quartet’s first performance together at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival re-proved the theory that not much separates great improvisatory musicians.

The show at the Carolina was very much like the first one, crackling with joyous energy. Much of the unbroken (nearly 2 hour!) set was electrifying, as the musicians romped through classics and new compositions completely in sync with each other. Roberts has great rapidity and clarity, and his fingers know all the jazz piano greats of the 20th century. His emotional range includes the silvery, spacious delicacy of Teddy Wilson, and the blistering stride of Errol Garner. Sometimes Fleck’s banjo sounded like a harpsichord chattering to a pianoforte. Sometimes it rang out like a horn. Other times, it had the sound of a plucked jazz guitar (I thought of Joe Pass). A duet between banjo and bass fluttered like delicate lace in a breeze. Whether all four instruments were active, one only, or any of the possible combinations were at play, the musicians were deeply attentive to each other, which gave music already cheerful a charge of bubbling gaiety.

Marcus Roberts, photo Duke Performances.

One goes to a concert not just to hear the music, but to see its makers do their magic. This one presented an unusual sight. Pianist Roberts is blind (he studied music at Ray Charles’ alma mater), and he was seated with his back to the drummer and bassist (and to me, in house left), who would sometimes have been able to see his hands. Fleck sat on a raised chair close to the left end of the piano, but even he had to read the subtle cues in Robert’s body language along with the cues within the music, in addition to those flashing digits. It was amazing to observe. More fun to watch, however, was the elegant drumming by the long, lean, handsomely suited Jason Marsalis. Even while keeping multiple complex rhythms going simultaneously, he makes textures as much as beats. He’s very controlled, very nuanced—and sometimes very mischievous. He and bassist Jordan got into an escalating challenge of interrupted rhythm patterns during their riff together, until it resolved into laughter and all the players sweeping back in, across the entirely imaginary divide between virtuoso musicians of whatever stripe.


Interviews with Roberts and Fleck on DP’s blog, The Thread.

Stylishly made and informative video made in support of the 2012 recording, Across the Imaginary Divide.

Listen here to a few cuts of Across the Imaginary Divide.

This amateur video gives a look at Marsalis’ elegant drumming.

Hour-long recording from the quartet’s first performance together at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival. There’s a little announcer talk at the top, but then it commences to SWING. Stay with it through the announcer break at 35 minutes–first up is a sparkling piano/banjo duet on “Maple Leaf Rag.”

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