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Three Degrees of Separation

New York
Fulton Ferry Landing
10/24/1999 -  
Georg Frederic Handel (arr. Halvorsen): Passacaglia for Violin and Viola
Sir Edward Elgar: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio #2

Anton Barachovsky (violin)
Ronald Thomas (cello)
Wendy Chen (piano)

It is hard to imagine a more pleasant way to spend a beautiful autumn Sunday afternoon than to journey across the East River to the Fulton Ferry Landing and enjoy the spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty and the jungle of glass and steel that is lower Manhattan. Fortunately at 4 o'clock every Sunday, Olga Bloom presents a fine program of chamber music aboard her unique concert venue, the vessel known simply as Bargemusic. Thematic programming being all the rage now in New York, this concert presented three works from different periods but with a common river running through them. The theme this day seemed to be "you can't judge a book by its cover".

The Passacaglia for Violin and Viola is a difficult piece to perform when there is no violist in attendance. Mr. Thomas, one of the artistic directors of the barge, assumed the role of master of ceremonies for today's proceedings (there is no backstage at the barge and so the audience must suspend its disbelief and pretend that the performers can appear and disappear as on a standard proscenium) and explained that the violist, Cynthia Phelps, who is principal at the New York Philharmonic, was unavoidably detained in Portland. He had some advanced notice of this problem however (he is Mr. Cynthia Phelps) and so met with the violinist beforehand to at least talk over the dynamic, tempo and bowing decisions necessary to keep them on the same page. The resulting extemporaneous performance was actually quite thrilling with Mr. Thomas playing the transposed part on the cello and providing a solid ground for the rhapsodizing of Mr. Barachovsky. Often my complaint about Bargemusic is that the performers are not, by the very nature of the concept of neighborhood one-time musical events, well rehearsed with one another and this can lead to raggedy performances. However, in this particular case the performance gelled fortuitously.

Mr. Thomas began his ruminations on the Elgar by stating that the orchestra necessary for its performance would take up the space of the entire barge, leaving no room for an audience. He played instead the piece in its piano reduction form, pointing out perceptively that Elgar kept the orchestration light in the original concerto. Perhaps the only work in the entire classical repertoire that is "spoiled" for me, the performances that I have heard over the years always pale in comparison to the du Pre recordings and so I listen with a jaundiced ear when confronted with a new live interpretation. Mr. Thomas was nowhere nearly as emotive as Saint Jacqueline but did produce a fine performance nonetheless. He made several fingering mistakes in the fast conclusion to the second movement but I realized that the spare piano accompaniment left him totally naked before our ears and so to compare him to a performer with orchestra would be unfair. Ms. Chen was particularly impressive in her muscularity and relentless attack, creating the illusion of an entire symphonic ensemble.

What Mr. Thomas did not explicate was the mysterious substitution of the Mendelssohn for the scheduled Brahms Piano Trio #1. Additionally the players chose to play not the Mendelssohn trio but rather "the other one". This amazing chamber work is almost totally neglected in favor of its famous sister Op. 49 although the reasons for this curious phenomenon are far from clear. Here the performance was not only flawless but gave at least the sense that the players had played together for a long time (they have not) and the audience was very appreciative of the large and warm sound which graced the excellent acoustics of this remarkable hidden treasure on the New York concert scene. I have never had an uninteresting time aboard the barge and today was no exception. What made this day especially enjoyable was the high level of communication between the performers and how they were able to project that sense of unity and love of their art to the fans only a few centimeters from them. At one point in her fascinating life, the barge was actually Olga's home and her original fireplace still stands in the cozy auditorium. Chamber music is the most intimate of all of the arts and in this charming setting when it is good it fulfills the original purpose of the art form: a sense of fellow feeling and the warmth of both the heart and the hearth.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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