Carter Brey and Gabriela Martinez’s joint performance at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville on Sunday night wasn’t the best concert of the season. It wasn’t even the best concert of the month. No one thought it was going to be. Brey, 59, is the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic who stepped back from a solo career in the 1980s to take a steady job in one of the best ensembles in the world. And Martinez is a young, gung-ho pianist who on Sunday showed an energetic team-player spirit that resulted in something very collegial but not exactly transporting.
The repertory didn’t break new ground: Beethoven’s 3rd sonata, Shostakovich’s early sonata in D Minor, and a sonata by Chopin, one of the few pieces that composer wrote that didn’t put the piano in a starring role. The hall is not beautiful. And the Beethoven, in particular, was punctuated by the persistent whine of what sounded like a malfunctioning hearing aid.
To say that this all felt liberating and made me enjoy the performance more may read, to some, as condescension. But it’s true. No one was pretending that this concert represented some unreachable standard of greatness. It was a respectable account of some great music, offered by a hard-working musician in between his other gigs. The small space, the imperfect pianist and Brey’s performing manner, in which eloquence alternated and eventually yielded to businesslike, evoked for me a house concert in Beethoven’s day, when a chance to hear live music was a treat.
Even the whining hearing aid fit the picture. Had Beethoven lived in the age of hearing aids, his surely would have whined, and he would have alternately been oblivious to it or fussed with it and finally torn it out and sat glowering in self-imposed silence. Its presence was a reminder of all the minor daily annoyances from which music can, at best, only imperfectly shield us.
None of this is meant as disrespect to Brey, who opened the Beethoven with a jaw-droppingly resonant account of the rich low ascending notes, and who sustained a narrative flow that seldom abated, at least through the first half of the program. Brey’s natural eloquence was spotlighted, time and again, when he took a phrase that Martinez had eagerly pounded out and showed what could be made of it, at the same tempo, with the same inflections. Martinez certainly has ability, powering out some of the rapid sections of the Shostakovich with intensity, but there was something student-like about a lot of her playing, and she tended to defer to Brey’s ocher-toned mastery.
Neither musician lingered: They took no repeats in the Beethoven, briskly acknowledged applause, offered no encores. The JCC has presented some world-class artists over the years, and their seasons routinely offer many gems. Next year’s offers Jonathan Biss and Miriam Freed, and the Jupiter Quarter, among others. Sunday night’s concert may not go down in its annals, but that was just the reason I enjoyed it.
The JCC’s next classical concert features the Goldstein-Peled-Fiterstein Trio on May 19.