Music review: Kennedy Center tribute to JFK and Casals

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 10:04 PM

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy took office and ushered in an era of unprecedented attention and support for the arts. That's the rhetoric that's been going around the Kennedy Center this week, as the center kicked off its two-week celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy inauguration - a festival that continued Tuesday night with a tribute to the concert the great cellist Pablo Casals gave for President Kennedy, his wife, and 150-odd luminaries from the worlds of music and politics on Nov. 13, 1961.

Kennedy's attention to the arts led ultimately to the creation of the Kennedy Center, which opened in 1971. As a result, the arts no longer need to be feted in the White House itself (though President Obama has made some visible efforts in that direction). They have their own temple, or mausoleum, in Washington, where they can be segregated so that events like Tuesday night's can be held without any politicians in attendance.

Unlike Casals's exclusive concert, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall event - featuring Yo-Yo Ma, a cellist who might be called Casals's contemporary counterpart in influence and stature - was open to the public, and ostensibly sold out, though there were a number of empty seats.

Trying to re-create iconic artistic moments is a hit-or-miss proposition. Tuesday's event expanded Casals's hour-long program to evening-length, thanks to the addition of a charming introduction by Marta Casals Istomin (his widow and a former longtime artistic director of the Kennedy Center, among other credentials), and a Beethoven cello-piano sonata (No. 3 in A, Op. 69) that wasn't on the original concert program.

In 1961, Casals was partnered by pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski and the violinist Alexander Schneider. On Tuesday, Ma was joined by Emanuel Ax, a frequent partner, and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, allowing Joseph Kalichstein, the artistic director of the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts, to take part in one of the series' biggest highlights. The K-L-R, as they are familiarly known, performed the Mendelssohn D Minor Trio, Op. 49; Ma and Ax carried the rest of the program.

With performers of this caliber, the point of the exercise is to sit back and enjoy. The most enjoyment, on Tuesday, came from the artists' own addition to Casals's program: The Beethoven was rich, firm and incisive. Before that, the duo had played selections from Couperin rearranged for cello and piano in 1924 and titled "Pieces en Concert," charming and melodious; and Schumann's Op. 70 Adagio and Allegro, originally written for horn, with big phrases in which Ma's cello sounded uncharacteristically tight. Both were perfectly pleasant, but it was in the Beethoven that Ma seemed really to come into his own.

The trio, before intermission, had the unenviable task of following a couple of bigger stars (it can't be easy for a cellist to take the stage after Yo-Yo Ma), but they rose beautifully to the occasion. Robinson's cello sounded firm, Kalichstein achieved some lovely ethereal playing, and they altogether played so beguilingly as to diminish reports of their gradual decline in quality.

The evening closed with a Casals arrangement of a traditional Catalan song, "El Cant des Ocells" (Song of the Birds), further arranged for all five performers (Ax and Kalichstein shared the piano keyboard). Like the evening, it was a slightly overchoreographed act of homage, preserving the shape of the original and a sense of its import without the full measure of its natural charm.

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