Young concert artists are frequently awarded invitations to perform in prestigious concert halls as prizes for winning competitions. It's a sort of trial-by-fire system that purports to sift out the most worthy from the rest of the pack, and sometimes does. Puerto Rican cellist Rafael Figueroa, who played Monday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater by virtue of his success in the Jill Sackler Cello Competition a year ago, is an example of that system working at its best.
A member of a large family of musicians, Figueroa plays with the poise and the concentration of a veteran. His tone has an almost human warmth rather than any particular silkiness or shine, but it is capable of a glowing lyricism that was at its best in the middle movements of the Brahms F Major Sonata No. 2.
He found a fine variety of moods and touches for the Shostakovich D Minor Sonata and handled the Cassado Suite for solo cello with a delightfully light touch. The program began with a transcription of a minor sonata by Locatelli.
Figueroa's partner in this music-making was pianist Wu Han, an exciting artist who gave the Brahms a passionate depth but was most impressive in the Shostakovich, where her touch and balance were exceptional.