Dec. 1 Civic Morning Musicals: Sarah Crocker Vonsattel & Company

Sarah Vonsattel 2

CMM opens ‘Live! At The Everson’ series with outstanding program of piano trios

Syracuse’s oldest arts organization brings violinist Sarah Crocker Vonsattel back to town — with husband-pianist Gilles and cellist Ani Kalayjian in tow

By David Abrams

Sunday afternoon was a homecoming of sorts for Sarah Crocker Vonsattel, the Elbridge-born-and-raised violinist and Juilliard grad who since 2008 has been a member of New York City’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Sarah’s Syracuse appearance was made possible by Civic Morning Musicals (CMM), the area’s oldest musical organization that heralds itself as the third oldest arts organization in the country. CMM, which soon will be celebrating its 125th anniversary, is an all-volunteer arts organization that sponsors dozens of yearly concerts and music competitions.  Its high-profile Sunday afternoon series, Live! At The Everson, targets successful performing artists who have connections to Central New York. 

The daughter of Syracuse pianist Susan Crocker, Sarah has already distinguished herself as a solo performer and orchestral musician.  But she is hardly a stranger to the world of chamber music.  The young violinist, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies her mighty musical delivery and Herculean tone, was a founding member of the Verklärte Quartet that was Grand Prize Winner at the 2003 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition.  

CMM chose to open this season’s Sunday recital series with a chamber ensemble of Sarah’s own choosing, and the violinist opted for a piano trio that included husband-pianist Gilles Vonsattel and cellist Ani Kalayjian.  The three young but already accomplished performers teamed up for a rousing program that showcased their formidable talents and ensemble savvy, forging a memorable experience that will likely resonate with the large crowd in attendance at the Everson’s Hosmer Auditorium for some time to come.

Things got off to a good start with Haydn’s playful Piano Trio in A Major (Hob XV no. 18), written at the time of the composer’s final six “London” symphonies. The players took the opening Allegro moderato in the relaxed tempo Haydn had indicated, with clearly defined dotted eighth-note figures that were crisp and polished.  The passing of the triplet figures between Vonsattel and Sarah bounced back and forth in seamless fashion.

Vonsattel’s grace notes and turns in the slow movement sicilienne that followed were well placed, and the ornamented melodic lines were full of elegance and charm.  This is a lovely movement whose treatment of the piano functions much like a Chopin nocturne — with an ornamented bel canto aria spinning out in the right hand (at one point a group of 17 notes appears over a span of three beats) over a steady beat in the left hand.  It’s a beautiful effect, and under Vonsattel’s delicate touch it sounded that much more enchanting.  Although I wished the three players would have taken more time between phrases, all of which begin on the upbeat (beat six), the overall delivery was quite charming.

The buoyant rondo tune in the final allegro was suitably effervescent, and in spite of the ambitious tempo the ensemble-work among the players was clean and precise. Sarah’s pitch during the syncopated melodic lines that Haydn doubles in the piano part was right on target.  Indeed, her command of intonation throughout the three-work program was outstanding.  

Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor (Op. 63), which dates from 1847, was likely inspired by the composer’s fascination with Mendelssohn’s Opus 49 Piano Trio (also in D minor) that Schumann had long admired and championed.  

The mournful stately theme of the opening movement sounded all the more somber under the dark tone of Sarah’s violin, which several times throughout the movement projected the dark timbre of a viola. This movement is memorable for its unusual (if not striking) aural effect at the nur ruhiger section — where the piano plays a steady series of stately staccato notes holding the una corda pedal while the two string instruments play hushed notes sul ponticello (near the bridge of the instrument).  The effect, through brief, is ethereal.   

The strings achieved a good synergy during the heavily dotted motifs spaced an octave apart in the Lebhaft movement that followed, though the insipid Trio section — with its tiresome rising and falling scalewise passages — can hardly be counted among Schumann’s best.  The slow movement Langsam gave listeners a taste of Kalayjian’s precision in the high register, and both violin and cello shined in their respective solo passages.  

The final movement (Mit feuer), like the final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “overcomes” its original minor key to end in the parallel major — yielding a triumphant finale to an otherwise dark and brooding composition. The three players opened throttle at the concluding coda, where the tempo grows increasingly faster, reaching a tremendous climax on a magnificent D Major Chord that drew shouts of approval from a clearly delighted audience.

The first half of the program was not without some logistical problems. Balance in the Haydn and Schumann trios seemed heavy in violin and piano and light in the cello from where I was sitting at the back of the auditorium.  Indeed, the live acoustics in Hosmer Auditorium make it difficult for the performers onstage to gauge how the music carries to the audience. Judging from the improved blend of tone following intermission in the Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major (Op. 87), however, I suspect the ensemble had figured this out and made the necessary adjustments.

Brahms’s chamber music has a unique tendency to sound larger than its number of players: Trios sound like quintets, quartets sounds like octets and sextets sound like string orchestras.  Yet this trio, which dates from 1882, works quite in the reverse in that it reduces the three voices to two.  The string instruments play together, an octave apart, throughout much of the work (each of the four movements in fact begins with long sections of violin and cello in octaves) — with a resulting texture of a single string sound pitted against the piano in the manner of a sonata.  Such an arrangement places the pianist at the center of attention, and Gilles Vonsattel — a winner of the 2008 Avery Fisher Career Grant and now an artist member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — proved worthy of the added exposure.

Vonsattel is an exciting performer to watch, as he is clearly absorbed in the music-making process.  And he appears thoroughly at home playing Brahms.  The Swiss-born pianist showed great patience in the opening Allegro, timing his rubatos (give-and-take of pulse) to allow the composer’s lush, expansive melodic lines to breathe and reach the listener’s palate only after being properly aged.  Though Brahms’s unidiomatic writing for piano presents formidable challenges for the performer (at times the composer treats the instrument like a full symphony orchestra), Vonsattel’s expert delivery suggests he has found the answers to many of these challenges.

The poignant slow movement, with its aching folk-flavored tune in the strings sounding two octaves apart, is a sublime set of variations — deeply introspective, and with a sense of longing and melancholy. 

Kalayjian, the Armenian-American cellist of the New England-based Sima Trio, phrased well in this movement, delivering her lyrical solos with grace and charm and playing the double-stop passages effortlessly.  Aided by some sumptuous playing here by Sarah, this alluring movement gets my vote as the artistic highpoint of the program.

I suspect the quick tempo of the third movement Scherzo, taken here as a true presto (as Brahms had indicated), was adopted largely because of Vonsattel’s ability to play at this speed.  The pianist’s delicacy of touch in the muted rapid sextuplet figures here was in fact breathtaking. The well-shaped string lines in the Trio section were clean and polished.  

Brahms’s Finale was suitably joyful (giocoso), and the three players forged a brilliant coda that brought the work to a triumphant conclusion — and the crowd to its feet.  

Details Box:
What: Civic Morning Musicals Live! At the Everson recital series
Who: Sarah Crocker Vonsattel, Gilles Vonsattel and Ani Kalayjian
When: December 1, 2013
Where: Hosmer Auditorium, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse

: $15 at door, students free
Next concert: An afternoon of American song, with Kathleen Roland and Daniel Faltus
 Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 at 2 P.M.

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