Haydn and Humor Invade La Jolla

John Bruce Yeh [photo (c) Todd Rosenberg]

John Bruce Yeh [photo (c) Todd Rosenberg]

Art—so the proverb goes—flourishes on limitations. While most of Franz Joseph Haydn’s musical contemporaries, notably Mozart and Beethoven, flocked to Europe’s 18th-century cultural capital Vienna to expand their musical horizons, poor Haydn worked and composed for the princely Esterházy family on their remote rural estates.

Tuesday’s (August 19) SummerFest concert offered a collage of Haydn works that demonstrated the sort of daily fare he churned out for his music-loving employers, including a pair of Baryton Trios. A curious cross between a viola da gamba and a viola d’amore, the baryton bass instrument (which became obsolete even before Haydn’s demise in 1809) was Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s own instrument, for which the dutiful Haydn wrote an astounding 125 trios to keep Nicky happy and amused.

Cellist Shirley Hunt, one of the few modern practioners of the baryton, joined violist Yura Lee and cellist Nicholas Canellakis in Baryton Trios No. 66 and No.113, identically structured three-movement works filled with charming melodies and each one innocently free of structural complexities. From her instrument Hunt drew a modest, sweet sound, less forceful than that of a cello and displaying less edge than a viola da gamba. Hunt’s colleagues Lee and Canellakis moderated their volume to match the level of her subtle baryton, except in those showy passages that Haydn gave to the viola and cello alone. Although Prince Nicholas loved his baryton, he was not that accomplished, and Haydn wisely did not give him licks he could not pull off with ease. Haydn also dutifully included cute ensemble pizzicato echo sections in each trio movement, which allowed the baryton player to pluck the baryton’s sympathetic strings, a special effect that the Prince evidently enjoyed.

Clarinetist John Bruce Yeh joined Lee and Canellakis in a pair of Haydn Clarinet Trios, similarly fashioned after the Baryton Trios, although the Clarinet Trios used violin instead of viola, and the composer offered the clarinetist more challenging and engaging lines than he did the baryton performer. The vivacious four-movement Clarinet Trio in B-flat displayed the exuberance and structural variety of a Mozart Serenade, allowing Weh to brandish his supple technique and pure, glowing sonority. Unlike the baryton, in Haydn’s day the clarinet was a new instrument, growing in its appeal to players and listeners; once Haydn and then Mozart took up writing for it, the humble clarinet gained a secure niche in western music-making.

Exactly why Haydn chose to write “Arriano a Naxis,” an extended soprano solo cantata based on the Greek myth of Ariadne, is unclear, but it could very well be that the story of a woman deserted on a desolate island in the sea reminded him of his cultural exile in Esterháza. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano’s dramatic, vocally radiant account of the cantata carried us through Ariadne’s complete emotional progression from confusion to distress to anger and finally to resignation with telling impact. Pianist and asccompanist Ken Noda sculpted his phrases with equal sensitivity and ardor.

Pianist John Novacek took full command of Haydn’s late Piano Trio in C Major, balancing an effervescent spirit of spontaneity with proper adherence to the composer’s architectural arrangements. Violinist Sheryl Staples and cellist Desmond Hoebig supplied their requisite embellishment to what is essentially an elaborate piano sonata rather than the later, more fully developed piano trio comprised of musically equal partners.[php snippet=2]

The Pegasus Trio could barely wipe the collective smirk from their faces as they delivered William Bolcom’s astute send-up of Haydn, his “Introduction and Rondo: Haydn Go Seek.” Clearly enjoying Bolcom’s subtle exaggeration of Haydn’s rhetorical flourishes and surprising thematic volte-faces, violinist Yi Zhao, cellist Coleman Itzkoff, and pianist Andrew Staupe brought their beautifully integrated sonorities and tight ensemble into sharp focus for this bit of comic relief. Lest anyone think Pegasus is a comedy act, on Friday evening’s musical prelude these players gave Dmitri Shostakovich’s daunting Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor a profound, emotionally probing performance that touched this critic deeply. I will not be at all surprised to see and hear more from the Pegasus Trio.

[box] This concert was given in Sherwood Auditorium at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art at 8:00 p.m. August 19, 2014. SummerFest 2014 continues through Friday, August 22, 2014 at Sherwood Auditorium.[/box]

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