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Knickerbocker Holiday

New York
National Arts Club
03/12/1999 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata #1 for Violin and Piano
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata for Viola d'Amore and Piano
Pietro Antonio Locatelli: Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 6 #12

Mela Tenenbaum (violin)
Richard Kapp (piano)

Just the other night I attended a concert at the Kosciuzsko Foundation, a wonderful nineteenth century house on the East Side where the historic venue enhanced the contemporary feel of the music of Chopin. New York is blessed with hundreds of these old homesteads and none are more impressive and elaborate than those that surround Gramercy Park, an oasis of gentility in the East 20's. Here the aristocracy of the last century lived their daily lives away from the clatter of the city just blocks away (Theodore Roosevelt's boyhood home on East 20th used to overlook pasture land from the back porch). Set near the corner of Washington Irving Place and the corresponding statue of the Knickerbocker chronicler is the National Arts Club, situated in the former home of Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York who has the distinction of having won the popular vote for president (against Rutherford B. Hayes) but losing the election in the electoral college (for my European readers this is a piece of arcane American political history best left unexplained). Tilden must have been consoled, however, by his opulent surroundings, complete with Tiffany ceiling and a magnificent view of the park. Here many jewels of the art world are presented to an invited few (the paintings in the dining room alone are worth the trip) and there is a good space for the presentation of musical treasures as well.

And treasures there were last evening. A remarkable program of Baroque style ranging from the surface coolness of Bach with its underlying cauldron of emotion to the exotic vibrations of the viola d'amore to the downright unreasonable demands of virtuosity that is Locatelli at his most challenging. All were traversed impressively by one of New York's hidden jewels Mela Tenebaum, the concertmistress of the Philharmonia Virtuosi, and her conductor and presenter of the evening Richard Kapp. Their orchestra is by now a New York institution which regularly performs at the Metropolitan Museum and other local venues as well as being the residents of the Cunard Line's "Classical Music Cruises" aboard the QEII and other ships (Koussevitsky and Simeon Bellison used to do this up and down the Volga with a group known as the Tzimro). Tenenbaum is deeply immersed in the music of the Italian Baroque (although, true to her roots, she is most excited about an upcoming CD of viola sonatas by Shostakovich, Rubinstein and Glinka) and has been recording the complete Locatelli Art of the Violin in recent months.

Kapp gave a little talk before each piece and helped to explain the stylistic differences on the program. The Bach was played with a controlled intensity and a marvelous phrase building technique which made this deceptively simple and mathematical sounding music seem highly emotive indeed. The piano parts for all of these pieces are workings of a figured bass and hardly the best way to showcase a pianist's abilities, but Kapp selflessly allowed the evening to belong to his virtuosa and her amazing technical abilities. The most interesting piece for me was the Scarlatti because of the rich sonority of the 14 stringed viola d'amore (seven strings on top and seven sympathetically resonating strings below the fingerboard), a sort of bowed guitar effect. Ms. Tenenbaum was equally at home with this unusual relic of another age and displayed a mastery throughout that was both confident and mature.

Pietro Antonio Locatelli is one of those composers whom writers unfamiliar with his music pigeonhole as a virtuoso who had a profound influence on Paganini and then consign to the scrapheap of the scholarly footnote. Kapp and Tenenbaum are actively seeking to resurrect the music itself and present it as viable concert fare, not just as finger dexterity exercise. Paganini was certainly influenced by this last Baroque wizard and master of the double stop and his 24 Caprices would have been impossible to conceive without the models of Locatelli. In the 12 Sonatas for Solo Violin (here presented with piano accompaniment) Locatelli was merciless on the prospective performer, making demands of coordination that seem beyond the pale of human ingenuity. But Ms. Tenenbaum is up to the task and performed not only the Sonata but the intermingled Capriccio and Cadenza with a fluid display of digital pyrotechnics (as a young superstar virtuoso, Paganini made his reputation by traversing these gargantuan scores). Each Sonata has a solo Caprice built in and each Caprice a Cadenza in its midst. Ms. Tenenbaum has now composed a Cadenza for every Caprice and has navigated all of these stormy waters (must be that cruise ship experience) to the point where she can present them as music and not as simply circus stunts meant to dazzle but not move. This is really important work and both performers deserve praise for musical scholarship as well as presentation.

As I walked the three blocks from the soft light of Gramercy (it's easy to imagine the gaslight) to the neon of Union Square to catch my train I thought of this dual effort to preserve the culture of the past both architecturally and musically with great fondness. Elementally this is what the idea of "classical music" (still a relatively new concept in music history) is about: the realization that artists of all periods and media are essentially trying to express the same thoughts about the human condition. Three cheers for these intrepid explorers who spend the time to unearth these wonderful musical gems!

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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