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Nathan Chan and Audrey Vardanega dazzle in duos and solos at Old First Concerts

Nathan Chan and Audrey Vardagena
Nathan Chan and Audrey Vardagena
courtesy of Old First Concerts

Yesterday afternoon’s Old First Concerts recital at Old First Church featured two young performers from the Bay Area currently continuing their studies in New York. They were twenty-year-old cellist Nathan Chan, now in the exchange program between Columbia University and the Juilliard School and winner of the 2013 Julliard Cello Competition, and eighteen-year-old Audrey Vardanega. During her debut performance with the Midsummer Mozart Festival in 2010, fourteen-year old Vardanega (the youngest soloist in the history of the Festival) performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 467 piano concerto in C major during the first half of the program and then, in the second half, joined the rearranged string section when concertmaster Robin Hansen left her chair to perform the K. 218 violin concerto in D major. (The program book for that concert called Vardanega a “triple threat” because she is also a composer.) Vardanega is also at Columbia while studying piano with Seymour Lipkin at Juilliard.

Yesterday’s program was particularly impressive because, along with two duo compositions, it provided solo opportunities for both Chan and Vardanega. Indeed, each half of the program began with a solo followed by a duo. The major work, however, was saved for the last, Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 cello sonata in F major.

Opus 99 was composed in 1886. Brahms was at the height of his maturity, and the following year he would compose his groundbreaking Opus 102 double concerto in A minor for violin and cello. Nevertheless, there is an almost youthful exuberance to the rhetoric of Opus 99 for which Chan and Vardanega could not have been better suited. Each of the four movements (even the Adagio affettuoso second) takes its own characteristic approach to unleashing intense energy. Furthermore, this is very much music for cello and piano, rather than cello accompanied by piano. (Brahms felt too strongly about the piano for it to be otherwise.) Thus, it provided the opportunity to listen to Chan and Vardanega as equals; and both of them seemed perfectly comfortable with this arrangement.

The result was all that one could hope for from a Brahms performance. The technique was rock-solid from beginning to end. Nevertheless, there was never any shortchanging of Brahms’ capacity for expressiveness and for his channeling that expressiveness through four distinctively different rhetorical settings. Most of all, however, this was a vivid in-the-moment experience of Brahms, a dazzling reminder that the proper place for music is in concert settings rather than any audio equipment, no matter how high the technical quality.

The duo performance for the first half of the program also involved a similar “encounter of equals.” This was Ludwig van Beethoven’s WoO 46 in E-flat major, a set of seven variations on the duet “Bei Männern weiche Liebe fühlen” from the first act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. Beethoven composed these variations in 1801, by which time he was already well established in the Viennese musical community. It is therefore a bit hard to imagine why he never took the trouble to publish the music, since it is an impressive piece of work. By using Mozart’s duet for Pamina and Papageno as a point of departure, he structured both the theme and the variations to develop his own rethinking of the nature of duet.

Thus, in yesterday afternoon’s performance one could appreciate the equal terms of cello and piano in Beethoven as much as one could in the Brahms performance. Indeed, in some respects, the interplay of the parts was even a bit more imaginative in the Beethoven than in the Brahms. Nevertheless, on the basis of what remains a highly memorable account of these variations by cellist Steven Isserlis and fortepianist Robert Levin, I would say that one element was missing in the account by Chan and Vardanega; and that was the element of wit. Perhaps as they become more familiar with the music, Chan and Vardanega will allow themselves to relax a bit and appreciate the opportunities for fun that it offers.

Vardanega took her solo after the intermission. This was Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 61 in A-flat major, which he called “Polonaise-fantasie.” She chose to offer a few remarks about the dual nature of the composition, approaching it as a confrontation, so to speak, between the formal nature of the polonaise and the less structured approach to fantasia. Personally, I think that the distinction has more to do with rhythm than with form: The rhythm of the polonaise is always clearly and sharply defined; but it is then “interrupted” by the freer improvisational rhythms of the fantasia. Indeed, the entire composition may have been born of an exercise in improvisation based on those rhythmic distinctions. Vardanega seemed to appreciate those improvisational “roots,” bringing a clarity to her execution that has sadly been muddled by too many other pianists.

Chan began the program with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1009 solo cello suite in C major. In many ways this music is also an exercise in the contrasts between well-defined rhythmic patterns (the dance movements) and freer approach to rhythm in the prelude. However, it is also a pedagogical exercise through which the pupil acquires not only technical proficiency but also the ability “to have good inventions [ideas],” a phrase that Bach included on the title page for what we now call his two-part and three-part inventions.

From this point of view, Chan still seems to be at the technical proficiency stage, even if he has mastered it impressively well. By passing on most of the repeats for the dance movements, he also passed on opportunities to use a second statement as a chance to explore different approaches to performance. Similarly, the prelude felt less like an exploratory improvisation and more like a major technical challenge that had been admirably conquered. It was clear from his Brahms performance that Chan appreciates how much more there is to music than the notes marked on paper, but his appreciation still needs to extend into his Bach repertoire.

The performance concluded with a single encore. This was the “swan” cello solo (“Le cygne”) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals. This is very much the warhorse of the cello repertoire, and Chan gave it a sincerely moving account. Vardanega kept the shimmering piano accompaniment quietly in the background, creating just the proper hushed environment in which the cello’s “swan song” could have its full impact.

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