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Crown Thy Good

The mood of Revel's inspired performance didn't fade with the final note

Reviewed by Michael Kellerman, Fri., March 4, 2011

Arts Review

Crown Thy Good

Private home

Feb. 25

It was clear this wasn't going to be your typical salon performance. First off, the performance began at 6pm – intentionally more like 6:35pm , actually, when the guests ultimately settled into couches and bistro tables strewn about an elegant but

modest West Austin living room. Second, everyone, including the artists, were just sort of hanging out, drinking wine, eating from a generous spread, and enjoying some chitchat. When the music eventually began, neither the casual mood nor the expectation of the audience changed one bit. The eating and drinking continued, the audience completely at ease, and the music flowed forth.

This was Revel, after all, the brainchild of cellist Joel Becktell and pianist Carla McElhaney. Their self-proclaimed "Austin-based classical band" seeks to eviscerate any vestige of the fourth wall, inviting its guests to "clap between movements," "come as you are," "go barefoot," "forget the rules," and ultimately, "let yourself be moved." It's an intriguing idea, a unique take on the challenge: How do you attract a more diverse audience to the traditions of classical music when the traditions themselves are often the barrier?

Lest I get too philosophical, let me get back to the idea of letting yourself be moved. As the audience settled, Becktell explained the opener of this all-American program, the "Capriccio for Cello and Piano," by Lukas Foss. Inspired by the spaghetti Western-era American West, the duo first set the scene with musical anecdotes. The performance that followed was exciting, full of American chutzpah and spare, wild material that illuminated Foss' inspiration, particularly with Becktell's assured, natural playing.

After generous applause, Becktell cued Harvey Pittel's entrance. The master saxophonist stepped out in front of the audience with a sopranino saxophone and played a spirited version of "Simple Gifts" for the crowd. Pittel, who is among the world's most celebrated classical saxophonists and a jewel of the University of Texas Butler School of Music, engaged the audience in a humorous history of the instrument. The concert-within-a-concert that followed traced the saxophone's eccentric path through American culture.

The music ventured where most chamber concerts don't – including the enjoyably daffy vaudevillian "Valse Yvonne," by Rudy Wiedoeft, performed on a rare straight-alto saxophone, and the inspiring, impressively technical "Oodles of Noodles," by Jimmy Dorsey. By Pittel's cliff-hanger encore – Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" played entirely in one breath using circular breathing – there was no doubt the audience was enraptured by Pittel and his instrument.

McElhaney was an exceptional accompanist throughout but took center stage again with Becktell and Pittel for the final piece, Aaron Bramwell's "Canciones Del Zocalo." Bramwell, founder of celebrated Austin Web firm Monkee-Boy, is a composer on the side; you wouldn't guess it from this fully realized tone poem. The performers were inspiring throughout, whipping the audience into a frenzy. The highlight was the feverish, dense piano material late in the piece, which McElhaney seized on with an exciting mix of focus and passion.

For me, the end of a truly rousing performance is always awkward. You get one or two moments, but when the lights go up, the mood breaks. As you shuffle out of the concert space, there's a strange conflict: You want to hold on to that inspired feeling, but how can you as you disperse and walk to your car? Here's where Revel's approach had me convinced. As these three tremendous musicians concluded a superb performance, they encouraged everyone to linger, and themselves joined the audience for more drinking and eating. What remained of the experience, then, was in my hands, as if to say: "Stay if you wish. Make your own rules. Why not just revel in it?"

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