Tears and Trembling at Dock Street

06.13.10
Inon Barnatan & Alisa Weilerstein, Inon Barnatan, Alisa Weilerstein
Charletston City Paper

By Lindsay Koob

It’s not over ‘til it’s over. Even late in the festival, our nonpareil performers keep coming up with musically ravishing — and emotionally devastating — material. And so it was at Friday’s next-to-last Chamber program.

“We have an especially amazing program for you today,” said director Geoff Nuttall, as he came onstage at the Dock Street Theatre, “mainly ‘cause I’m not playing.” First up was a marvel of Baroque-era violin wizardry, courtesy of Heinrich Ignatz von Biber. Geoff introduced the music in his inimitable way, describing the violin sonata we were about to hear as “really messed-up bluegrass fiddling from 1680.” He went on to describe how the music would build up in an increasingly crazed manner to an “absolutely insane” climax. Then he introduced us to the players: “mad violinist” Daniel Phillips, backed up by the basso continuo team of cellist Alisa Weilerstein and Pedja Musijevic at the harpsichord.

And Geoff was not kidding. Danny tore into the piece like a house on fire, and somehow the fire kept building through the music’s 10-minute course. Just when it seemed he couldn’t go any faster, he did, peppering his playing with all kinds of flashy virtuosic tricks that Biber — himself a renowned violin master — enriched his era with. I’ve experienced this remarkable music before on CD, but I wonder if I’ve ever heard more seemingly reckless, right-on-the-edge fiddling than we got here. Whew!

“How much fun was that?" cried Geoff as he returned after our thundering ovation. Then he reverted to his self-proclaimed role earlier in the festival as “chief evangelist” for the music of Josef Haydn. He proceeded — voice dripping reverence and awe — to point out some of the witty attention-getting devices the old master built into his Trio in G Major, No. 15. Then he introduced us to his musicians: Flute sorceress Tara Helen O’Connor, with Alisa back on cello, and Pedja returned as well, but this time at the piano (he’s equally adept on harpsichord and piano). The witty opening Allegro gave way to a sprightly and conversational Andante before the final Rondo ended the piece in a fit of pure and playful joy, with the flute and piano romping together in perfect synch. Absolutely delightful.

But the best was yet to come. Geoff described the “Rach” addiction of his youth as he introduced the program’s final number: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s luminous and ultra-passionate Cello Sonata, Op. 19. Doing the honors was Alisa Weilerstein, the morning’s pretty (and profound) workhorse. Joining her was the phenomenal young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan (whom I interviewed later in the day — watch for the blog post). Like I’ve already told you, this pair performs together often in New York, and it showed. For what followed was one of my most unfathomably magical musical moments … ever.

I won’t even attempt to attempt to break down the movements for you, as I was totally swept up in the moment. But this piece had it all: smoldering passion, nervously skittering passages, slow and stately radiance, gripping drama and crushing emotion. I’ve never been through anything quite like it. It kept me in helpless, intermittent tears from start to finish (I can’t even write about it with dry eyes). Glancing around the Theatre (when I could still see), the young Italian pianist who got my spare ticket (he’s played the piece) sat next to me, holding his head in trembling hands … a lady in the front row was rocking gently back and forth, hanky pressed to her mouth … and glistening cheeks over open-mouthed wonder were everywhere in evidence.

Alisa and Inon made for one of those absolutely stupendous, perfectly matched musical teams, playing with absolutely faultless technique, exquisite phrasing, and startling dynamic contrast. And most importantly, their sweet souls were in perfect accord. This was truly one of the supreme musical experiences of a lifetime and I wonder if I’ll ever get over it. Moments like this are what make life worth living.

Now let’s see if today’s final program XI can top that.