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NKU's "New Beginnings" Taps Emotions

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jan 19, 2010 - 6:27:14 PM
There was a triple play at Northern Kentucky University's Greaves Hall January 17.

Opening the Department of Music's "New Beginnings" chamber music series were pianist Sergei Polusmiak, violinist Tatiana Berman and cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn.

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Sergei Polusmiak
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Tatiana Berman
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Ilya Finkelshteyn
Also known as "Sergei and Friends," the annual series features Polusmiak, NKU's distinguished artist-in-residence, and guest artists.
The three joined in an emotionally charged performance of Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67. Each artist also performed a sonata or solo work, including Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano, Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 94b, and two works for piano solo by Debussy, "La Plus que Lente" and "L'Isle Joyeuse."
The concert marked the Cincinnati recital debut of Finkelshteyn, new principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
The program -- and the performance -- reflected the musicians' combined Ukrainian and Russian heritage. Polusmiak, who is Thomas and Christine Neyer professor of music at NKU, holds the title "Honored Artist of Ukraine," conferred by his native country. Berman and Finkelshteyn. both Russian-born, were both students at the Specialized Music School of the St. Petersburg Conservatory before immigrating to the West.
Finkelshteyn and Polusmiak opened with the Debussy Sonata, a 1915 work written in the shadow of World War I, when the composer was dying of cancer. It is somber, fitful and barely 10 minutes long, marking Debussy's embrace of French music in the 18th-century tradition of Couperin and Rameau. Polusmiak set the stage with his dramatic opening chords, while Finkelshteyn drew out the sorrow and fancy of the work. The two artists were of the same mind, melding ensemble and expression closely. Finkelshteyn's warm, dark tone (he plays a Giovanni Crancino cello, ca.1700) and daunting technique made the most of its deceptive intricacy and deep meaning.
It was violinist Berman's turn in the Prokofiev Sonata, a sunny work arranged by the composer from his Sonata for Flute in D Major, Op. 94. Berman, a founding member of concert:nova, played it with considerable fire. Her performance showed off the Pietro Mantegazza violin she is currently trying out. Though she has been playing it for less than two weeks, the vintage instrument (18th-century) seemed quite at home in her hands. The opening Moderato, a good-natured movement with substantial melodic interest, profited from the instrument's mellow tone (surprisingly like a cello in the cello's high register), as did the Andante with its ribbon-like phrases. She danced nimbly over the strings in the Scherzo, ending with a ringing pizzicato chord. Her real showpiece was the finale, where she executed gymnast's feats leaping into the violin's highest positions and exercising fine bow control and rapid double-stopping.
Polusmiak stoked his Debussy with fire, too, especially in "L'Isle Joyeuse," a 1904 work inspired by the Watteau painting "Embarkation for Cythere." The piece requires close, hand-over-hand playing, fists full of chords and, in Debussy's own words (according to author David Dubal) "all the ways of attacking the piano." Polusmiak pulled it off with zest. By contrast, "Le Plus que Lente" ("The More than Slow"), Debussy's tongue-in-cheek ode to the slow waltz then in style in Paris, was an impressionistic little gem.
Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op.67 (1944) was written in memory of Ivan Sollertinsky, a close friend from his student days. It reflects the composer's deep grief, even anger, at death (especially untimely death), and like Mahler in a similar vein, is wrenching to listen to. The three players captured its emotions fully, from the breathy, almost labored harmonics with which the strings open the work, to the unbearably intense finale.
The second movement (Allegro non troppo) was relentlessly percussive, with repeated down bows and rapid crescendo effects. Polusmiak opened the Largo, a threnody for Sollertinsky set as a chaconne (variations on a repeated harmonic progression), all joining in an expression of profound desolation.
The finale (Allegretto) was like a dance to distraction, the string players strumming big chords to Polusmiak's klezmer-like tune, sounded in pealing, fortissimo octaves (Sollertinsky was Jewish). Finkelshteyn and Berman added their own lamentations until it all collapsed in a kind of "amen," with the piano sounding soft chords against string harmonics once again.
"New Beginnings" continues February 26, with Polusmiak and violinist Francis Restesan, and April 25, with Polusmiak and tenor Mark Panuccio. Both recitals are in Greaves Hall. For information, visit www.nku.edu/~music/