The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Michael Kellerman, January 29, 2010, Arts

'aRrrrrrr, play us a song there, Matey'

First United Unitarian Church

Jan. 23

There are countless examples of how America's obsession with reality programming cheapens our culture – no need to name names to prove a point. But there are those few gems – the Project Runways and Top Chefs – that instead offer us a

scintillating opportunity to go beyond the cult of personality and explore the act of creation, demystifying the notion of talent as an exotic thing to be worshipped from afar.

Few artistic traditions are more steeped in distant formality than chamber music, which is why I am thrilled to see Michelle Schumann continue to lead the Austin Chamber Music Center out of the concert hall and into the reality of our proverbial living rooms. Saturday's exciting, intimate concert provided further evidence of this.

An example: In the moment before launching into Rossini's Variations, a difficult piece even if not played on a single string, cellist Greg Sauer tuned his entire instrument in preparation. Schumann chimed in with, "Is there a reason why you're tuning all your strings?" Sauer blushed, and the crowd laughed, now invited into the scene. The wall between artist and audience broken down, the musicians then took to the piece with tremendous verve, Sauer's fingers moving with swift grace across the fingerboard.

Violinist Teresa Ling then joined Sauer and Schumann for Ravel's Piano Trio in A minor, an elegant example of the composer's signature sonic landscape. The three master musicians soared through the metrically eccentric first movement; in the second, Schumann's outstanding virtuosity leapt off the page. The haunting tension of the third movement led into a symphony of textures in the finale, capturing both the sense of discovery and the obsession with all things Oriental that inspired the composer, and much of Paris to boot, following the 1900 World's Fair.

The performance of the Ravel was so tremendous, I almost failed to mention the Rachmaninov Trio Elegiaque, the second act's epic. The trio's performance was nuanced, emotionally gripping, and due more commentary than this space allows.

Earlier, Schumann explained the whimsy behind the concert's title: The creation of each of the pieces being performed involved an element of piracy. The Rossini took off on a tradition established by the perhaps-fictional account of Niccolò Paganini's experience in prison. Rachmaninov wrote the string trio presented here in honor of the sudden death of his mentor, Tchaikovsky, who himself had produced a string trio after the death of his teacher, Arthur Rubinstein. Ravel's trio involved material stolen from his own canon; the work was under way as he was drafted into World War I, forcing him to swipe elements of his previous works to complete it in time. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then in this case self-imitation is bliss, a perfect fusion of inspired writing and ecstatic performance.

The pirate premise was slightly cheeky, but as with most reality programming, if the gimmick gets you in the door, it's the quality of what follows that keeps you coming back. This reminded me of Schumann's mantra for the current season: "We aim to engage!" Engage she did, first by drawing the audience into the human dramas of composer and performer alike and then by slaying us with some of the most exceptional musical artistry happening in Austin today. And did I mention how good the Ravel was? I did? Argh, well, it was worth repeating. Matey.

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