Proper concert attire isn't something I think much about anymore. The notion that a performer, especially a classical musician, should be formally dressed for a performance has pretty much joined bipartisanship and civil discourse as passé beliefs, espoused primarily by those who still use rotary phones. Still, the pairing onstage of violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang creates such visual discord that it requires effort to ignore. Wang, who's played no small part in challenging our expectations about what classical musicians should wear onstage, is a fashion maven whose sartorial tastes range from tawdry to elegant, often looks like a collision of both. Regardless of the outcome, she always makes the effort to impress, and Tuesday night at Stratford she wore a slinky trailing gown in two shades of red, with a skin-revealing cut-out on one side and a wide black leather sash cinched across her midsection. Kavakos' appearance is the extreme opposite. He walks onstage looking as if he just put down a bag of chips and picked his wardrobe from a pile of laundry on the floor after remembering he had somewhere to be in ten minutes. They don't look like partners, but rather like two people whose paths crossed only from the most unlikely of circumstances, thrown together like subjects in a New Yorker cartoon caption contest.
Here's the point where I'm supposed to write "and none of this matters because these two superb musicians made such thrilling music together," but I'm afraid I can't because the musical harmony wasn't any better.
Tuesday's concert, presented by Washington Performing Arts, did in fact feature over two hours of very well-played music, but little of it was interesting, and most of it lacked passion. The program featured "violin sonatas from World War I" by Leoš Janáček, Claude Debussy, and Béla Bartók along with, somewhat inexplicably, Franz Schubert's Fantasy from 1827. Both Janáček and Debussy wrote only one piece in the form, while Bartók wrote two (the first being the one performed here). The historical and biographical weight within these compositions was hard to discern - Kavakos is a fluent master of tone and precision, but most of the time he kept the emotive qualities in the pieces on a tight rein. In the lullaby-like tone of Janáček's second movement he seemed to be following Wang, who kept running ahead with the lead, leaving him to catch up to her with only sporadic and brief success. When he did, the rewards were impressive, though this was rare. In the piece's fourth movement, Wang would beckon and Kavakos would halt, creating a dance between tender yet clumsy partners, he straining for sentimentality, she ignoring it and forging ahead.
If one had never heard it before, one might not know that Schubert's Fantasy can be a lively, melodic delight, not the jaunty, jerking trotter unveiled here. Instead of focusing on the work's drama and rhythm, Wang seemed intent on finding grandeur within the piece and came up short. Kavakos unleashed some true magic during the final section, but the overall impact felt long-winded.In the concert's second half Debussy and Bartók fared no better in shapeless, meandering performances.
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