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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Concert Review: It Happened in an Apartment

The return of the salon concert in New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A pianist at home: Joel Fan. Photo courtesy Inverne Price.
In the 19th century, the salon was fertile ground for the development of what we today call "classical music." Chamber artists, virtuoso pianists and composers would gather together for social evenings at each other's homes in Paris and Vienna. Playing together and exchanging ideas, they helped build a culture that laid the groundwork for today's staid concert halls and opera houses.

Now in New York City, a small group of artists is dedicated to bringing back the salon concert for the new millenium. The pilot for this program was held at a private home in Chelsea, a spacious, open-plan apartment ideal for the fifty-odd in attendance. As guests arrived, host Joel Fan bustled behind his kitchen counter, supervising the small bar. A spread of deli meats, Middle Eastern delicacies and cheeses kept the little crowd fueled, and tea lights provided the atmospheric illumination of another time.

The performance itself started with two string players from the Juilliard School. Violinist Mariella Haubs and violist Jameel Martin opened with Mozart, playing the first movement from the B Flat Sonata for Violin and Viola. The room silenced, and Ms. Haubs played with yearning tone capturing the operatic qualities in Mozart's writing for her instrument. The duo followed with "Take Five", the Dave Brubeck jazz classic in an innovative, playful arrangement.

Mr. Fan then sat down at his own piano for a recital, opening with La Nuit du Destin, a gorgeous, atmospheric piece from Syrian composer Dia Succari. Combining Arabic minor modes with the Western impressionist tradition, this riveting work moved, capered and whirled before dissolving into dream-like gossamers of sound. The intense rhythms and driving chords, a legacy of the music of Succari's native Aleppo, made this performance an early emotional climax. Following the salon formula of chacun a soun gout, Mr. Fan followed this with three more pieces, souped-up jazz alternating with a dreamy, slow movement.

Next, the tall, stubbled fellow who'd been sitting and listening, eyes closed, on the end of the curved couch got up and walked over to the piano, where his instrument case was stored underneath. He was, in fact concert cellist Zuill Bailey, who took an evening in the middle of his tour to join the festivities. (Mr. Bailey is known for playing on the world premiere recording of Nico Muhly's cello concerto, and he was en route to Stamford, CT to play the Dvorak concerto.) Cellist and pianist collaborated on two pieces: a soulful transcription of the Meditation from Massenet's opera Thaïs, and Lukas Foss' Capriccio.

Brought down to the lower range of the cello, the Meditation emerged not just as the agonies of the soprano but the passions of Athanaël, the monk obsessed with the title character. Massenet's debt to Wagner's Tristan was made very clear in this performance, slow and haunting with shifting chromatic textures that glimmered against the piano accompaniment. The Foss piece was a perfect contrast, playful at one moment and muscular the next, with thrusting and parrying chords that kept the piece moving with relentless momentum.

The little salon concert ended with one last impromptu: Mr. Bailey's performance of the Prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1. This famous melody hushed the crowd once more, with only the creak of floorboard or the occasional shift of foot reminding the listener that one was definitely outside the concert hall. Bach's immortal melody bridged space and time, bringing the idea of the salon forward and opening the small audience to the rich and wonderful possibilities of this intimate concert format.

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