Saturday, May 24, 2008

Stoltzman & Son Rock in Miami

My ears are ringing, but that's a good thing ...

Way back around 1980 a friend invited me to a concert by Tashi, the ground-breaking contemporary music ensemble. It was, and still is, unorthodox to name such a group as if it were a rock band, so I certainly knew them by name. But at the time the only one of its members I could name was pianist Peter Serkin, and that was mostly because he was the son of the renowned Rudolph Serkin, also a pianist, giving him quite a hard act to follow.

Besides piano the group contained only a violin, a cello, and--oddest of all--a clarinet. This unusual instrumentation should have given them a highly restricted repertoire, but they found and arranged and commissioned plenty of material to play their way into legendary status.

On that long ago evening, the centerpiece was Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, that brooding work unique for being written while the composer was interred in a prison camp during World War II. This was in fact the single piece for which the group was originally formed, and the explanation for their choice of instruments. One of its movements is for solo clarinet, and if I had not noticed him before, the performance was more than enough to send me scanning the program for the name of Richard Stoltzman.

There are a couple of single, long, held notes in this piece that begin inaudibly soft and end as loud as the instrumentalist is capable of playing. In Stoltzman's case, the dynamic range was huge and impressive, and filled the entire space inside Dade County Auditorium until it rang. The notes were like primal screams (a trendy therapy in Tashi's era) of rage and release, framing an incongruously playful birdsong. I left the hall with those notes permanently implanted in my memory, along with the identity of the musician who had uttered them.

Stoltzman went on to forge quite a career for himself, both with Tashi and on his own, as featured soloist with countless orchestras throughout the world. But I next noticed him when I discovered his "crossover" album called Begin Sweet World, in which he followed the example of other classical performers who have moved into the arena of jazz. This album, featuring contemporary arrangements of some classical pieces as well as more improvisatory ones, was such a smash hit that he followed it up with several others--enough for another career--such as Brasil, New York Counterpoint, and Dreams.

Obviously by this time I was a fan. So it was with delight and anticipation that I went to see him perform again last week, this time at the University of Miami's Gusman Concert Hall under the auspices of Sunday Afternoons of Music (sundaymusicals.org). We noted that the elder Stoltzman was to be accompanied by his son, Peter, on piano. But little did we realize what a powerful performer the younger Stoltzman would prove to be--so much so that his father playfully thanked him for "still allowing me to play with him."

The first half of the performance was devoted to classical works. That solo movement from the Messiaen (I finally got to hear it again live) was framed by a Debussy Rhapsodie and a Leonard Bernstein sonata, which we learned was that composer's first serious composition, dating from when he was just twenty. Stoltzman introduced it by saying it owed much to Hindemith, but soon revealed the Bernstein that was to be -- "West Side Story coming soon." Indeed the lyrical features of it did presage what was coming later, and the Stoltzman duo went one better and gave us an additional treat that was not on the program in the form of a suite from West Side Story itself, just so we could compare them side by side, so to speak.

In both the Dubussy and Bernstein the pair played wonderfully well together, absolutely tight on timing and with voices so compatible it was sometimes hard to tell which was playing, even though the instruments are so different from each other.

The second half was all jazz, and it was here that the younger Stoltzman, who had already performed prodigious feats, really showed what he can do. We understood how his father must feel as he works to keep up--though he certainly rose to the occasion.

First came an Ellington medley, then a trio of Thelonious Monk. It was at the end of this set that the clarinet topped it off with a mad riff that ascended WAY up beyond the end of the keys, seeming to pop the musician's head off the top like a cork from a bottle. "Waa!" he exclaimed with a huge grin, and to huge applause.

"That note can't be written!" I said to my wife -- it was too high above the staff.

The concluding set from Porgy and Bess was tame by comparison, but it was nice to be let down easy and to be reminded of how solidly classical Gershwin has become. And the quiet encore of "Amazing Grace" caused peace itself to descend on the room.

The passing of musical genes through generations of a family is a well known phenomenon, as witness the likes of the Strausses, Mozarts, and most notable of all, the multiple sons of J.S. Bach. In our own day we have seen the aforementioned Rudolph Serkin being followed by his son, Peter, and violinist Issac Stern succeeded by his conductor-heir, Michael -- not to mention the Marsalis clan and the talented daughters of Ravi Shankar (which proves it's not a male gene).

Now with Richard and Peter John Stoltzman it appears that a new dynasty has been born.

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