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Mozart, Barber, Bartók: Appassionata Piano Duo (Maira Liliestedt and Janelle Phinney), John Curtis (percussion), Matthew Beck (percussion), The Canton Symphony Orchestra, Aultman PrimeTime Chamber Series, Cable Recital Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 10.3.2011 (TW)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:
Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (1781)

Samuel Barber: Selections from Souvenirs (1951)

Bela Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937)

The final offering in this season's Thursday afternoon Aultman PrimeTime chamber series by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was a marvelously colorful and textured program that featured the accomplished, Canton-based Appassionata Piano Duo of Maira Liliestedt and Janelle Phinney. As their collaborative name suggests, their playing throughout the three works on the program was certainly passionate-a warm and deft joining of palpable grace with flawless, often fiery technique.

Their performance of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major was a bubbly start to the program. With a seamless flow of back-and-forth, call-and-response phrases and themes, the pianists effectively conveyed the spirit of brilliant gallantry that underlies the work's many quick-paced, intricate, ornate, and technically demanding passages.

Shifting to the 20th century, the duo's performance of three excerpts from Samuel Barber's Souvenirs (1951) was no less effective. Barber originally wrote of the work that he wanted to conjure lounge music, circa 1914 New York City, in the "…epoch of the first tangos…with affectionate, amused tenderness." In that, Liliestedt and Phinney were thoroughly captivating in their grasp of the work's melding of poignancy and intimate humor, right down to the gently awkward (and intentional) wrong notes in the "Waltz" segment. And you could almost see the sultry haze of smoke billowing in the air of Palm Court in the Plaza Hotel as they played the haunting, exotic "Hesitation Tango," with its occasionally jarring moments of quirky dissonance.

In a way, the work was a fitting mood-setter for the similarly quirky and exotic Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) by Bela Bartók. Here, Appassionata was joined by CSO members John Curtis (timpani and percussion), and principal percussionist Matthew Beck. CSO President and CEO Stephen Wogaman enthusiastically introduced the work with a beaming smile, as if presenting a long-lost foreign friend, noting that he hadn't heard the work performed in 30 years, and its appearance on concert programs was a "rare, rare, thing."

This might not be due to its bizarre harmonies, strange melodies, and asymmetrical structures (after all, this is Bartók), as much as it is a notoriously difficult piece to perform. Many musicologists have pointed, some with dismay, to its relentlessly "convoluted counterpoint," interspersed as it is with explosive, even frightening bursts of seemingly warring instruments (including timpani, bass drum, snare, gong, cymbals, and numerous piercing punctuations by xylophone). Indeed, the piano writing alone was designed to treat the instrument not as a vehicle for melodic lyricism, but as a fully percussive element. But here, the intrepid ensemble successfully met the occasion of precise delivery with a riveting, lucid finesse that was alternately muscular and delicate. Sometimes murky and dark, sometimes shimmering, with moments that bring to mind mysterious Balinese gamelan or other foreign music, the three-movement work ends on a distinctly more "accessible" note, growing from a joyfully frenzied folk dance. And judging from the numerous murmurs and looks of surprised approval from the audience, I think the concert went far in making Bartók more friendly.

Tom Wachunas

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