Johann Christian Bach: Keyboard Quintet in D Major, Op. 22, No. 1
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1 (arr. Webern)
Thomas Adès: Catch, Op. 4
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, K. 452
According to a popular saying, good things come in threes. And according to my schedule, last Thursday night I was ready to test the veracity of that claim when, after two highly successful evenings in the Zankel Hall and the Stern Auditorium, the time had come for me to pay a visit to the smallest, but admittedly loveliest, venue of them all, the Weill Recital Hall, to complete my Carnegie Hall season-opening home run.
That perfect opportunity had presented itself in the form of a concert by some members of Decoda, a collective of alumni from Ensemble Connect, the coveted two-year fellowship program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute in partnership with the New York Department of Education. Needless to point out, that kind of impeccable pedigree means that the musicians are of the highest caliber.
And sure enough, true to their reputation of talent and boldness, they had concocted a program of “Influences and Inspirations” that featured an eclectic range of works from German Baroque, the Second Viennese School, English Contemporary and Viennese Classical. Not a bad way to spend my last evening of freedom of the next two weeks, and a rainy one at that, before a much less exciting trip to JFK the following evening.
As hard as it is to believe, Johann Christian Bach – AKA the “English” Bach – apparently was more famous in his lifetime than his father, the one and only Johann Sebastian Bach. And I’ll be the first one to admit that I immensely enjoyed the immediately attractive melodies, carefree mood and easy flow of his 10-minute Keyboard Quintet in D Major, all confidently brought to life by the five evidently inspired musicians on the stage. That said, I also think that history has made the right choice in canonizing his father.
The audience’s fleeting chance to get comfortable ended abruptly when we jumped from an easy-listening opener from 18th century London to a ground-breaking shocker from 20th century Vienna. Indeed, even if some lingering Late Romanticism could be heard in some of the stunningly lyrical violin lines, Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 was squarely facing the future on Thursday night. And what a future it was! Decoda had chosen the Anton Webern-arranged version for the intimate concert, and there they were, expertly dismantling solidly established tradition and virtuosically working their way through the onset of a radical revolution.
After intermission, we moved back to England, but in the company of a contemporary Englishman this time, with a young and mischievous Thomas Adés and his truly delightful Catch. Written when the composer was 19 and still in school, it is a short piece that had a somewhat traditional piano-violin-cello trio onstage contend with a feisty clarinet that looked and sounded comically out of control. Starting in a seat at the end of my row, clarinetist Paul Cho quickly got up and turned into a busybody walking erratically among the audience in the hall and the musicians on the stage, not to mention keeping everyone guessing during his random disappearances. It was fun, clever and, of course, expertly performed.
The last but definitely not least piece on the program kind of brought us back full circle to the beginning as Johann Christian Bach briefly taught a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart back in 18th century London. Fact is, even if this trivia had not been spelled out in the program notes, it would not have been difficult to detect the same gift for inherently appealing melodies, which in the Viennese master’s case end up being yet another asset in addition to the serene elegance and refined intricacies of his stunningly crafted Quintet for Piano and Winds. The terrific playing by the Decoda musicians did the rest, and our evening wrapped up with the best that the Classical tradition has to offer. Mozart was reputedly very proud of that particular composition, and there’s no doubt he would have been very pleased with that particular performance.