Tannery Pond Opening Concert, 2008: Phan, Kim, Arron, Mužijević play Haydn, Fauré, Britten, Schumann

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Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Pedja Mužijević, piano, photo Christian Steiner
Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Pedja Mužijević, piano, photo Christian Steiner

Edward Arron, Cello
Pedja Mužijević, Piano
Soovin Kim, Violin
Nicholas Phan, Tenor

Franz Joseph Haydn, Piano Trio In C-Major, Hob. 15:27
Gabriel Fauré. La Bonne Chanson, Op. 61
Benjamin Britten, Folk Songs
Robert Schumann, Piano Trio No.1 In D-Minor, Op. 63

The summer season began for this concertgoer Sunday afternoon on a very high level in a very good place, Tannery Pond, on the Darrow School campus, which occupies part of the Shaker community at New Lebanon, New York. A bright, warm Sunday afternoon arrived on c

ue to inaugurate this season of a distinguished chamber music series which began in 1991. There is no more comely place to gather for music; the acoustics are intimate, clear, and warm in this converted tannery, originally built by the Shakers in 1834; and its founder-director, Christian Steiner, a distinguished pianist and photographer, provides a uniquely enthusiastic “one-man-show,” introducing the program, arranging chairs, recording and photographing the concert, turning pages, and picking up overturned flower pots, as was necessary this afternoon.

While much of the charm of Tannery Pond stems from Mr. Steiner’s multi-talented enthusiasm and his patrons, who pretty much filled the hall, and the intimacy of the place itself—not to mention the birds, who expressed their appreciation of the music in their own unobtrusively musical way—there were no distractions from the matter at hand, the music—this afternoon a brilliantly chosen selection for the traditional piano trio together with song. Mr. Steiner prides himself on his attention to detail in the Tannery Pond Concerts, and this it true in every aspect, above all, what really matters: the hall, a more intimate version of what one finds at Norfolk and Music Mountain, with a well-chosen piano, a fine nine-foot Yamaha concert grand, and a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, plentiful, and quiet audience.

The sensitive and flexible interaction of the musicians belied the fact that they do not perform exclusively together as a named group. Cellist Edward Arron, a graduate of The Juilliard School, where he studied with Harvey Schapiro, has been artistic co-ordinator of the Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert and is a member of the contemporary music group MOSAIC. Pianist Pedja Mužijević, who was born in Bosnia, is likewise a graduate of the Juilliard School. He has played widely in New York and abroad, both as soloist, with major orchestras, and in chamber music.Violinist Soovin Kim, a graduate of the Cleveland and Curtis Institutes, is on the faculty of Yale and Bard. He plays the 1709 “ex-Kempner” Stradivarius. Nicholas Phan, tenor, studied at the University of Michigan, the Manhattan School of Music and the Houston Grand Opera Studio. He has sung in Texas, Glimmerglass, Wolf Trap, and, recently, with the Chicago Symphony, with which he sang Iopas in Les Troyensunder Zubin Mehta.

Edward Arron, Cello; Pedja Mužijević, Piano; Soovin Kim, Violin, photo Christian Steiner
Edward Arron, Cello; Pedja Mužijević, Piano; Soovin Kim, Violin, photo Christian Steiner

The concert began with an absolutely superb reading of Haydn’s Trio in C Major (Hoboken XV:27). Everything was right here. Pedja Mužijević showed an impeccable sense of Haydnesque composition and style, Soovin Kim played his Stradivarius with both eloquence and discretion, and Edward Arron showed exceptional sensitivity in his playing of his own part and in his interaction with his comrades. His mastery of color and inflection is impressive, and his playing constantly showed insight and imagination. I especially enjoyed the way in which he concluded sections and movements with lingering resonances from his instrument. Mr. Kim’s singing tone and intelligent phrasing were no less impressive, and Mr. Mužijević kept a perfect balance between crisp articulation, careful observation of Haydn’s all-important rests, and lyrical nuance. For the most part he avoided the pedal, except in the slow movement, when he applied it with perfect taste. Beyond this, his softening of tone and management of Haydn’s harmonically labile transitions had just the right sense of brilliant invention and incipiently romantic dreaminess. Pedja Mužijević is without a doubt a “Haydn man,“ if I may break political etiquette in the case of this masculine composer par excellence, and I would like nothing better than to hear him play an entire program of Haydn Sonatas.

Next, the remarkable young tenor Nicholas Phan addressed Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson, his setting of nine poems from Verlaine’s collection, composed between 1892 and 1894. Inspired by the the range and quality of Verlaine’s lyrics in this tribute to his mistress Emma Bardac, Fauré set them to music which is both thematically consequent and extraordinarily wide in emotional range. The cycle may have its dreamy and inward moments, but there is much else as well. Nicholas Phan faced the cycle head-on, that is, honestly, and keen to explore its many shifting moods, while respecting its flow and structural coherence. Mr. Phan is a singer’s singer in every way. His voice has been carefully built and retains a muscular core even in the quietest, most intimate moments. He is totally in control of vocal color throughout his range, even in the difficult high register. Nothing happened there unless he wanted it to happen. He commanded a heroic dark mid-range and well as the most delicate head tones. This was truly masterful singing. He maintained a forward flow throughout the cycle. Rallentandi never dragged. His rhythm was always disciplined and clear. In this way the audience could appreciate Phan’s nuanced musicianship, while immersing themselves in the subtleties of Verlaine’s texts. Especially notable was his range of dynamics and timbre in the final lines of 1, 2, and 5. “L’hiver a cessé” (No. 9) was a tour de force of vocal chiaroscuro. His range of expression in the second line, “Et danse, du sol au firmament claire” was breathtaking.

After the interval Mr. Phan continued with an equally idiomatic rendering of five of Benjamin Britten’s folk song arrangements, exploiting all the variety and color Peter Pears himself might have reached for and then some. In “The Salley Gardens” he ended with an exquisite head tone. “Little Sir William” was thoroughly touching, and “The Plough Boy” sent us off with wry humor, perfectly expressed. (Since the tannery is adjacent to the Darrow School’s playing fields, Phan was able to illustrate “out on the green” with a telling gesture.) Mužijević’s accompaniment was spot on in both the Fauré and the Britten, as he was in the Haydn.

The final work was Schumann’s great first piano trio in D Minor. This is a complex work, built of asymmetrical phrases, sharply turned nuances, significant rests, but a strong forward thrust, which make none of that any easier for the musicians. Kim, Arron, and Mužijević attacked the first movement an intensity which never hindered their attention to detail or their splendid sense of the long line of the melodic voices. Mužijević was as keen with Schumann as he was in the rest of the program. Mr. Kim’s subtle phrasing and robust tone were especially valuable here. The interflow of tension and relaxation among the three was also impressive, as well as the interplay between violin and cello, arriving at an astonishing timbre in the pianissimo bars before the final cadence. The scherzo was lithe and energetic, guiding the way to the slow movement, in which the players combined a perfect, solemn tempo and a sense of the extended melodic line. This deeply moving reading led into the final movement, which began with splendid breadth. At this point Mr. Arron broke his C string. His colleagues shared a few jokes with the audience while he re-fitted string. They began again at the beginning of the fourth movement, a trifle faster, it seemed, than before. If some continuity was lost, the energy and eloquence of the music carried on. Pianissimo passages in the B section and the development were exquisitely executed, and the slight accelerando in the coda was perfectly managed.

This was as deeply satisfying a chamber concert as any I’ve heard. Mr. Steiner is to be warmly thanked for bringing this superb musicianship to such a beautiful location. What could possibly be missing here? …a Dichterliebe from Mr. Phan, of course!

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