MUSIC REVIEW: The Artist Series Concerts: Stephanie Block, viola, and Yi-Fang Huang, piano

 
 

There’s no doubt about it — hearing chamber music in a chamber is the way to go. Unlike the austerity of a concert hall with hundreds, if not thousands, of seats, the warmth a private home gives to a recital or small ensemble concert is the right setting. In fact, it’s the setting most composers of this rich repertoire envisioned when they wrote the music.

The Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota usually presents its performances in the intimate space of the Historic Asolo, the charming Italian renaissance hall that was reconstructed here in Sarasota and is a beautiful setting for this kind of music. But, even better is the Weisenborne/Fischer residence, with its trio of grand pianos, two pipe organs — yes, pipe organs — and space for about 50 people on chairs and couches to hear recitals the way they were meant to be heard.

Sunday afternoon, violist Stephanie Block and pianist Yi-Fang Huang treated us to an appealing program of challengingly virtuosic music spanning the 19th- and 20th- centuries. By the way, if Block and Huang sound familiar, it’s because they’ve both performed in the Sarasota Music Festival, during which Lee Dougherty Ross, artistic director of the Artist Series Concerts, heard them. She hired them to return to town for this special recital. Good thing, too — they’re spectacular performers.

The 19-year-old violist, who is as proficient and poised a speaker as she is a musician, and the excellent pianist led us adroitly through four pieces of music starting with three selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” arranged for viola and piano by Vadim Borisovsky, who was a violist in the Moscow Conservatory’s Beethoven Quartet in the last century.

To my ears, Borisovsky’s arrangement, especially of Juliet’s sprightly theme played on the viola, was like hearing a soprano aria sung by a baritone, turning the nimble teenager into a mature woman who’d put on a few pounds over the years. Still, Block and Huang played it beautifully, with the pianist lending solid support to the violist’s rich, large sound. Yes, there were a few slips in the viola’s intonation, especially when she played sul ponticello (using the bow on the bridge of her instrument). But this is a small point because, overall, the playing was superb.

Vieuxtemps’ “Elegy” showed the duo off better, allowing them to play long, luxurious legato lines and still breathe in all the right places. Brahms’ Sonata in E-flat had all the romantic, stunning sound the composer, who was intensely fond of the viola, infused into his music. Think of Brahms, and think rich and warm. Block’s tone is all that and more, and she has a virtuoso’s way of plowing into the depths of her instrument to bring out all the passion Brahms asks for without any instrumental mugging or arrogance.

Finally, as something of an encore, the duo played the “Tango,” an arrangement by Efrem Zimbalist Sr. (the violinist, not his son, the actor), of music by Sarasate. Here, both Block and Huang were able to dig into the guts of the music with the violist, especially, sounding like a sexy Carmen who sings on the lower strings.

We don’t often get to hear viola recitals and, while there may be a lot of viola jokes out there, her playing is no joke at all. We hope she and Huang, who also plays the viola when not sitting at the piano, will stick together as a Duo. And we look forward to hearing them back in Sarasota, perhaps in a return to the Sarasota Music Festival.
 

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