Rising young clarinetist, pianist at Wisconsin Lutheran College

By - Mar 12th, 2011 02:54 pm
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Jose Franch-Ballester - clarinetist

Jose Franch-Ballester – clarinetist – Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Clarinetist José Franch-Ballester and pianist Anna Polonsky demonstrated a full range of chamber music styles and moods Friday night (March 11) at the Wisconsin Lutheran College Guest Artist Series.

Franch-Ballester headlined a program of the Young Concert Artists International series.  He recently completed studies at the Curtis Institute and has received numerous honors and a regular role in the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center.  But Polonsky, on the piano faculty at Vassar and a frequent guest with at CMS/Lincoln Center, was no mere accompanist.  The two matched each other well, and they selected works that showcased piano as well as clarinet.  (See samples of their work here. Polonsky perfomed in Milwaukee with the Fine Arts Quartet last June.)

The two delivered Carl Maria von Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant with panache.  This late-Classical duet resembles Beethoven’s early Romantic works and features conversational exchange of themes between the players.  The duo attacked the opening movement, settled in for a tender middle section, then re-established the pace to a dramatic conclusion.  To end the work the duo traded rapid scales or in some cases ran the scales together in perfect synchrony.

Two works by Claude Debussy (an arrangement of Reverie and the Premier Rhapsodie) could not have been more different from the Weber. Weber was more about virtuoso mastery. Debussy’s pace is more sedate and the notes more sustained.  Color and atmosphere were captured through sustained pedal or long flowing reveries with no stop for breath on the clarinet.  The piano created an enchanted environment and the clarinet danced through the landscape.  During the Rhapsodie, colors seemed to pour out of the piano case and drift above the singing clarinet.

Franch-Ballester plays the clarinet with a relaxed style that does not reveal the difficulty of maintaining a flow of air for long periods of time.  He has mastered circular breathing, rarely opening his mouth but rather breathing in through his nose while pressing out the last breath with his cheeks.

Bohuslav Martinu’s Sonatina provided another contrast.  Notes were distinct.  Rhythm – occasionally jazzy – marked the performance.  The work ends with a rush of notes.  Polonsky grinned, knowing that the piano can manage the speed as it picked up the pace.  Franch-Ballester kept up.

Anna Polonsky - pianist

Anna Polonsky – pianist

Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel features a borrowed melody so beautiful that many instrumental arrangements have been written.  Polonsky played with some restraint; Franch-Ballester emphasized the Latin rhythms and communicated the dance styles.

Two Rags for Two Johns, a recent work by John Novacek, concluded the program. This was no simple ragtime revival, but a complex work inspired by ragtime rhythms. Novacek pushed the limits of syncopation.  Polonsky caught all the rapid shifts in timing, to the apparent delight of herself and the audience.  Rapid starts and redirection are more difficult on the clarinet.  Franch-Ballester was with the shifts every bit of the way.  The work also called for growls, glissandi and occasionally stomping feet or shouts. The duo owned the work.

The program, given at the Schwan Concert Hall, was part of a long list of performing arts season events at Wisconsin Lutheran College. At 3 p.m. Sunday March 13), the college will host Cirque Voila! on its Family Series. For tickets and further information, visit the WLC Guest Artist Series website.

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