Chamber music patrons are a mellow lot. I’ve always thought the act of seeking beauty in a small space acts as a tonic to calm the mind before a single note’s been played. Music lovers enter the elegant concert halls of this city, like the lovely jewel box theater at the Frick (above, right), with quiet assurance that the performance they are about to hear will meet a deep need to spend an hour or two with great works of art in an intimate setting. Concert halls in museums are a double gift: strolling through the galleries before a chamber music concert is one of the greatest pleasures I know.
There’s something wonderfully extravagant about listening to chamber music. When composers express themselves in miniature, it’s as if all their gifts are compressed for maximum effect. For his New York recital debut in October, the English pianist Charles Owen (above, left) chose a traditionally structured program of works from four centuries that displayed his considerable talents and reminded all of us of the big impression an artist can make in a small venue.
The first half of the program was devoted to music of the 18th and 19th centuries. Opening with a late work of Felix Mendelssohn, Variations serieuses, Op. 54, Owen’s elegant playing filled the tiny concert hall—it seats only 175—and we were plunged into a wonderful afternoon of music. The pianist’s deeply felt slow movements were magical throughout his performance. Mendelssohn’s elegiac melodies unfolded with great beauty and solemnity. In the early going the tempos of the faster variations were occasionally rushed, sacrificing some of the work’s emotional depth. By the second piece on the program, Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D Major, Owen brought the full force of his ability to the music at hand. The Bach had an unexpected regal quality and a tenderness that charmed the audience.
After the intermission Owen performed two short works by the young contemporary composer Nico Muhly and finished the program with Claude Debussy’s Twelve Preludes, Book One. Debussy, the accessible revolutionary of the early 20th century, was determined to discard the vast Germanic heritage of the previous two centuries, preferring instead the art of seduction. Owen took just the right approach in each piece, playing with grace and pointed enthusiasm.
Concerts at The Frick Collection are recorded by WQXR, 105.9 FM, for future broadcast and stream at wqxr.org. The 2014–2015 concert season is the Frick’s 76th. The schedule for the remaining concerts, which run through April, 2015, can be found here. For more on the works by Nico Muhly, stay tuned to The Best American Poetry blog for an upcoming interview with the composer.
Georgia Tucker is on the faculty of Riverdale Country School. Prior to her career in education she worked in fine arts broadcasting.