The Concerts

Ravel and Beethoven

Anton Nel, piano; Brian Lewis, violin

Feb. 19, 8pm, Jessen Auditorium, UT

$12 general admission, $7 UT students

The Ravel Violin Sonata contains one of the oddities of classical music: a French impressionist composer's version of the blues. By the time Ravel composed this piece in 1927, the radio broadcasts from the Eiffel Tower had begun, bringing the new American music to the homes of Parisians. Jazz and blues were the rage, and the premier French composer, nearing the end of his life, absorbed it all. While composers like Bach, Schubert, and Liszt cranked out music by the truckload, Ravel's life's work lasts a total of eight hours. He was a perfectionist and left nothing to sort through; everything left is quality.

Beethoven was a fan of Napoleon. His "Eroica Symphony" (Heroic) was dedicated to the revolutionary who Beethoven hoped would transform Europe with his enlightened leadership. When it didn't turn out that way, Beethoven denounced his hero, then turned his reformist hopes to Czar Alexander I of Russia, to whom he dedicated a set of three violin sonatas, including the No. 8 in G Major that Nel and Lewis are performing. Beethoven was not to be disillusioned by the czar, who died just before the premiere of what was to be another, more significant dedication: Beethoven's final and ninth symphony.

Brian Lewis

Brian Lewis is a heavy hitter. The youngest of Nel's concert partners, Lewis has assembled a colossal résumé: worldwide performances from Carnegie Hall to the Berlin Philharmonic, competition victories, and critical acclaim. His most recent project says it all: a recording of Leonard Bernstein's Serenade for Violin and Orchestra and the world premiere of film composer Michael McLean's Elements for violin and string orchestra with no less than the London Symphony Orchestra in the world's most famous recording studio, Abbey Road. His concert schedule over the next month alone takes him from Austin to New York to Brazil and to Reno.

Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff

Anton Nel, piano; Bion Tsang, cello

Feb. 25, 8pm, Bates Concert Hall, UT

Free admission

Three Russians, all 20th century, two expatriates, and one hardcore nationalist. Somber and serious, Sergei Rachmaninoff never cracked a smile. With a life span covering the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, he bridged the gap between two ages. His Sonata for Cello in G Minor was composed in 1901 in Moscow, just after he'd emerged from a three-year depression in which he composed virtually nothing, recovering only after hypnosis and auto-suggestion therapy in which his doctor repeated, "You will write your concerto. You will write your concerto. It will be a great concerto." Sixteen years later, Rachmaninoff left Russia forever in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Igor Stravinsky, like Picasso, never rested long in any one style. His most famous period, that of his Rite of Spring and Firebird, features music that's tough, angular, and rhythmic – heavy metal 70 years early. The Suite Italienne for Cello and Piano is the antithesis of that style; it's as if James Hetfield wrote an album of pretty, acoustic songs, but somehow, they were really good. This is the heart of Stravinsky's neoclassicist phase, a time when he looked to the music of Mozart and Haydn's age for inspiration. The suite gives some balance to the heavier music of the other two composers, and given Nel's predisposition toward the classicists, it's a natural program choice.

Bion Tsang calls Dmitri Shostakovich's Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor "one of the 20th century's greatest pieces for small ensemble." Combining a classic lyricism and beauty with a 20th-century complexity and intensity, the piece is Shostakovich at a peak of his creative powers. Written in 1934, the composer premiered the piece himself along with the principal cellist of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, Victor Kubatsky. The program at the premiere was nearly identical to this one, as Shostakovich and Kubatsky performed the Rachmaninoff cello sonata as well.

Bion Tsang

Born in Michigan, raised in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., student at Julliard, Harvard, and Yale, and still somehow Bion Tsang is a Miami Dolphins fan settled in Central Texas. Like Nel, Tsang was a child prodigy, performing with the New York Philharmonic for a worldwide CBS broadcast at age 11. He won the competitions, toured, recorded, and developed a career as a classical virtuoso. A few years ago, Tsang, newly a father, was offered a position here at UT. Persuaded in great part by the enthusiasm of Nel, and ready to balance his performing career with a more steady life for himself and his family, he accepted. Since then, his career, with a new recording of the Bach cello suites, much touring, especially in Asia, and the formation of the Texas Piano Quartet with Nel, Lewis, and violist Roger Myers, has continued to grow. Also growing is his family. Born just this past week is the newest member of his family, a second son.

Mozart for Piano Four-Hands

Anton Nel, Mary Robbins, piano

March 20, 3pm, First Baptist Church of Austin, 901 Trinity

Mozart's music was a vehicle for his own virtuosity, his own personal marketing tool and social key. Chamber music like this was made for the salon, for flirting and fun and showing off at 18th-century parties. The Viennese piano of Mozart's day was a relatively light instrument, with a clean, bright, easy sound without the power and drama of the modern piano. The action was light, and it took little effort to press the keys. The four sonatas Nel and Robbins will perform reflect the instrument and the social situations it was designed for: light, fun, brilliant, and showy. Being a product of one of history's outstanding geniuses, it also manages depth, richness, and artistic sophistication.

Mary Robbins

Given the option, Anton Nel would play nothing but Mozart and Schumann, plus some Beethoven. Mozart brings out his passion to its fullest, and this all-Mozart concert will be an opportunity to see the virtuoso play what he loves most. Sharing Nel's sentiments, Mary Robbins has dedicated her life to Mozart. In 1991 she founded A. Mozart Fest here in Austin. Originally an annual birthday tribute to the Austrian, the fest now presents a full season of concerts each year, many exclusively featuring Mozart's music.

  • More of the Story

  • Five Degrees from Beethoven

    UT pianist Anton Nel, figuratively descended from a line of teachers beginning with Beethoven

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