Cellist Joseph Johnson, pianist Victor Asuncion a perfect match

By - Oct 6th, 2011 11:50 am
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Joe Johnson, former MSO principal cellist, now principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony.

Cellist Joseph Johnson and pianist Victor Asuncion made music sound like passionate, persuasive conversation at their recital Tuesday (Oct. 4), at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

The small, enthusiastic, elite audience comprised mostly local luminaries of and hammered strings. Johnson, former principal cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and current principal of the Toronto Symphony, and Memphis-based Asuncion are amid a six-city tour. The tour was supposed to promote their new CD. As it turns out, the disc isn’t ready, but these musicians are more than ready. Tuesday night, both partners listened intently. They maintained perfect ensemble in shared passages, brought imagination and nuance to the recurring themes and displayed a breadth of color and expression.

They opened with Beethoven’s Variations for Cello and Piano on Bei Mannern weiche Liebe fühlen from Mozart’s Magic Flute. They traded passages ranging from sparkling, effortless cascades of notes to plaintive melodies. They made exquisite transitions between light and shadow. They playfully navigated each changing mood and shaded those moods with subtle gradations of legato and staccato.  They revealed the laughter and the lament in the music, and let lingering traces of one emotion color the other.

Their connection and communication was taut as a piano string in Dialogo, the first movement of Benjamin Britten’s seldom-played Sonata in C, Opus 65, written in 1961 for Mstislav Rostropovich. The conversation began with three up-bows, erupted into a tumbling, roiling flood of passionate attacks and contrasting textures and tones, and finally subsided into a whisper of delicate piano scales and cello harmonics. The sonata progressed through a playful Scherzo Pizzicato, a darkly ponderous Elegia, a carnivalesque Marcia ending in ellipsis and, finally, a roller-coaster Moto Perpetuo. The finale begins with churning notes in the cello, progresses through a chromatic wilderness of piano chords and a rising crescendo of percussive pizzicato and saltando (bouncing bow). It arrives safely in the key of C at the end.

Johnson and Asuncion returned after intermission, to enthusiastic applause, to play the Brahms Sonata, Opus 99. They flaunted the full range of texture and color virtuosic hands can draw from vibrating strings. They plunged into the symphonic texture of the opening Allegro Vivace. Lyrical melodies emerged now and then from thickets of dense tremolos and rapid string-crossings. The Adagio Affettuoso began with piano melody supported by pizzicato and then opened into lyrical cello passages that rose and fell like breath. The Allegro Passionata climbed a series of scales and stacked arpeggios to climax and begin anew. The cello, now singing soprano and then singing bass, surged over piano chords that lapped at the edges of the cello lines. The Allegro Molto began gently, with lyrical melodies passing between the players. They fully realized Brahms’ interwoven contrasts of color and texture, sometimes interrupted by strident punctuations, and his complex emotions, his shifting mix of clouds and sunshine.


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