Retrospective Fragments from a Virtual 2020 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Mass.
As more performers adapted to the isolation of 2020 and as streaming technology succeeded in commercializing these events, most venues are cautiously optimistic for a partially live summer season in 2021. However, there were many cherished events that were done gratis during the critical first wave.
Here is my first installment reliving some of the most memorable concerts in retrospect.
June 27, 2020
Marc-André Hamelin at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport Massachusetts
Hamelin: Toccata on “L’homme armé”
Schubert: Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960
Few concert halls can boast better acoustics, architectural beauty, and a gorgeous seascape backdrop for performers as this Rockport jewel. Philanthropist Shalin Liu has graced this sleepy Cape Ann village with a space, I would imagine, any recitalist would find ideal.
Having binge-listened to recordings of Marc-André Hamelin, I was delighted to find he was appearing on-stage in a stream-only recital to benefit the Shalin Liu Performance Center, a venue previously unknown to me. Mr. Hamelin is the virtuoso non plus ultra of our time. It’s hard to imagine a period with so many pianists with such supernal techniques: Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifonov, and Igor Levitt to name a few.
Yet, Mr. Hamelin seems to be asymptotic to their endeavors. For example, his recording a while back of Fredric Rzewski’s Piano Variations (“The People United Will Never be Defeated!”), requiring superhuman chops and endurance (as well as whistling in tune), can be seen as both a new benchmark of modernistic virtuosity and a limit for audience endurance. The mammoth set lures listeners with great tonal beauty and then, in an Ivesian way, “stretches” the ears with merciless dissonance. Other pianists have recorded these variations but as brilliant as these are, Mr. Hamelin’s reading is so effortless, limpid, and unified in vision, that he became a default standard. Years ago, I was dazzled by Busoni’s monumental Piano Concerto in C Major performed by both John Ogdon and Garrick Ohlsson. You’ll find Mr. Hamelin’s rendition on YouTube, and on disc with Mark Elder. Yet, this evening, Mr. Hamelin’s artistry was challenged in an altogether different way.
The program for the Shalin Liu benefit was Schubert’s monumental final B-flat Major sonata, a work whose difficulties are not worn on the sleeve, and one requiring the most sensitive pianism to express the work’s palette tonal colors, shades of expression, and emotive coherence.
The streaming experience, June 27 at 5 PM, depicted Mr. Hamelin behind a view of gray skies on a rainy seacoast day replete with undulating seagulls underscoring Schubert’s somber and dark study with the neatly folded ensemble of insouciance, ribbons of color, and fleeting flights of weightlessness. Mr. Hamelin might be one of the most peripatetic of concert musicians, yet his passport’s density has been grounded like those of his other musical comrades, some as famous, many merely struggling to live. His expression during the recital left no doubt as to this shared experience of isolation so close to mother sea. The performance was memorable for all sorts of musical reasons, but the sight of a gray bird randomly going by seemed to underscore Schubert’s precious passages of confidence and optimism.
As much as I missed that Andrew Marvell observation of music as the “mosaic of the air” with a live presence, I spent this late June day at home in front of my Macbook counterbalanced by feelings of gratitude for my health and acceptance of humanity’s profound circumstances.
I will not forget the tense pauses enveloping the ominous bass trills of the opening theme, nor the last theme’s supple fairy dance on the highest keys.
An extra musical treat: Hamelin’s own Toccata on “L’homme armé,” getting pianistic fireworks out of the way at the start. I appreciated all the glitter at the outset transitioning to the inwardness of the Schubert subdued mauve universe.
July 2, 2020
Chamber Concert: The Parker Quartet at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport Mass.
Daniel Chong, Violin
Ken Hamao, Violin
Jessica Bodner, Viola
Kee-Hyun Kim, Cello
Mozart: String Quartet in D major, K. 499
Szymanowski: String Quartet, No. 2, Op. 56
Beethoven: Cavatina from String Quartet, No. 13, Op. 130
Shortly after the Hamelin concert, Rockport hosted the members of the Parker Quartet for a stirring recital that attempted to speak to the crisis at hand in necessarily ambivalent moods.
The ocean backdrop was gloomier here than for Hamelin: a murky fog blurred the boundaries of sand, rock, sea, and darkened figures. The bona fides of a holiday weekend (remember when we had 4th of July celebrations?) were shuttered like most of everything else.
Yet, each work presented rose to the occasion. The Mozart, a work of vigor, optimism, and playful grace, smugly challenged the encroaching drear. Szymanowski’s dark, passionate, and eerie soundscape bared some acceptance and acquiescence to our collective alienation. Written in the composer’s later folk-inflected style, the quartet’s pedigree elusively suggests Bartok, Berg, and Janáček. As is the case with much of the composer’s music, his voice is reflected in the blend of diverse styles. Moments of Romanticism and counterpoint yield to indigenous Goral highland tonalities employing Lydian and pentatonic scales; brooding and starkly dark moments are curiously balanced with rhapsodic and ecstatic violin passages drenched with whistling harmonics. It is perhaps Szymanowski’s combination of colorful passion and bare aggression that continues to challenge audiences today.
Finally, the Beethoven Cavatina Opus 130, offered, perhaps, as a prayer for deliverance, concluded this thoughtful program. In retrospect, given the year of isolation, and more isolation to possibly come, such a prayer seems rather faint and attenuated. The program, for me, seemed almost a Hegelian dialectic: Mozart’s tonal secularism, Szymanowski’s near-destructive pathos formed counterarguments, resolved by Beethoven’s sublimity, humanity and nobility.