The philosopher Ken Wilber has shown in several works how the word "peak" in the phrase "peak spiritual experience" should also carry the meaning of its homonym, "peek." When one has such an experience, the content is not off in some amorphous metaphysical realm, but is an actual glimpse of higher human consciousness. Charleston Symphony Orchestra Concert Master Yuriy Bekker and Caramoor Virtuosi Pianist Andrew Armstrong, along with the CSO's principal clarinetist Charles Messersmith, created just such an experience during their performance at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. There might have been one dropped note, and an almost humorous disaster averted of sheet music interacting with the air conditioning, but these only served as reminders that all are part of the cosmic joke as it unfolds.
As the opening march of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholody's Sonata in F Major for Violin and Piano gave way to the bounce and flow of the early themes, Bekker chose a coy, flirtatious tone countered exquisitely by Armstrong's earnestness in touch, reflecting both humor and depth so that each state transcended and included each other. The more melancholy sections showed both musicians' ability to listen to each other and wring every emotive drop from their instruments without relying on pretense or maudlin effects. The movement's ending section, a rhythmic chase, sometimes in unison, sometimes in parts, highlighted Andrew's impeccable dynamic sense and gave both musicians and audience quite a workout!
Now comes one of the trickier movement pauses in all of chamber repertoire. If the adagio comes with too much legato in its flow, it sounds like a mere break in the action. Too little legato and the flowing lyricism of its melody will find itself choked. Our duo chose to give and take, give and take, creating space for the melody to not only breathe, but also to stand crisply defined. The closing Allegro vivace's speed and virtuosity left no doubt that these two men of very different temperaments can act as one.
Our duo returned to the stage for a gentle reading of Anton Rubinstein's Melody, Op. 3 No. 1. Its sweet, folk-like charm rolled and tumbled through though several variations, the warmth of home and hearth evoked as a subtle strength earned through time-tested bonds.
The next work featured Armstrong alone, returning to Mendelssohn-Bartholody. Variations Serieuses for Piano, Op. 54 begins as a slow, sad waltz, with each variation adding touches of more complex harmonic color and rhythm. During the second variation, his sheet music got caught in an errant current of air that just wouldn't let it go no matter how many times he lifted his left hand to bat it back. His tempo never wavered, and it is doubtful that anyone in the audience with their eyes closed would have noticed. Andrew's precise sense of touch brought an unexpected, but very welcome, lightness to this work that made each note the inevitable conclusion to the note before it.
Charles Messersmith now joined our duo for two movements from modern composer Paul Schoenfield's Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. The third movement, titled Nigun, came first. Its angular opening with the clarinet playing solo leads to responses in kind from the violin, and finally the piano joins to create an airy floating flow, in spite of each individual line remaining quite jumpy. Messersmith's purity of tone perfectly complemented our duo's simpatico. Next came the work's first movement, a wedding dance titled Freylakh. This wild cauldron of frantic joy hides its complexity behind the mixture of Jewish folk dances and jazz while the clarinet wails, and even screams, making the accompaniment fit like a well-worn glove. Not a person in the house was without a smile as it rapturously ended with a bang.
Following the vaudevillian admonition to "leave 'em singing," Bekker and Armstrong closed the program with Raimundo Penaforte's virtuoso arrangement of Leonard Bernstein tunes, West Side Suite for Violin and Piano. "I Feel Pretty" provided its own catcalls and whistles. Somewhere gave both musicians one more opportunity to flex their emotive prowess. And the familiar chug of America picked up energy with each pass, beautifully melding the mechanistic and the organic.