Violist Antoine Tamestit's thoughtful, venturesome and arrestingly musical recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Sunday afternoon was a joy. Tamestit, who won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions this year (and was presented under that organization's auspices), started off as a violinist but switched to the viola at the age of 10, having fallen in love with its "deeper voice." All to the good, for this instrument needs the sort of persuasive advocacy Tamestit offers.
The program began with Rebecca Clarke's Sonata for Viola and Piano. Clarke (1886-1979), who did most of her writing in her native England but spent the last four decades of her life in the United States, was a creator of great gifts (imagine Cesar Franck as a modernist and you'll have some idea of what her music sounds like). But she faced not only the dismaying public apathy that greets most young composers but an additional level of discouragement reserved for women in what was then perceived as a man's field. By the time she was in her mid-thirties, Clarke had diminished her output radically. She quit composing altogether when circumstances compelled her to become a nanny for a Connecticut family.
It's another sad story from the world of music, which has been well described as a glorious art and a brutal business. In any event, the three-movement Viola Sonata, finished in 1919, is a beauty -- awash in potent melodies and realized with a distinctively personal command of harmony. If it had been written for the violin instead of the viola, it might well have entered the standard repertoire by now. Tamestit played with unfailing authority, making the most of every passing nuance but never losing sight of Clarke's ambitious and tightly knit formal design.
The local premiere of Daniel Kellogg's Sonata for Viola and Piano followed immediately. Kellogg, born in 1976 and currently based in New Haven, strikes me as perhaps the most generously gifted of the American under-30s: This three-movement work combines the energy and plainspoken urgency of Aaron Copland's ballet music with some of the densely sonorous chordal majesty associated with Olivier Messiaen. It is sumptuous, virtuosic music and was played authoritatively by Tamestit and his excellent pianist, Ying-Chien Lin. Max Bruch's "Romanze," rapt, sentimental and altogether charming, closed the first half of the program.
After intermission, Tamestit took the stage alone to play Paul Hindemith's Sonata for Solo Viola (Op. 25, No. 1). This is difficult music for both player and listener: It is austere, naked and not especially gregarious (even Bach had a difficult time writing for unadorned string instruments) and relies heavily on whatever narrative gifts the soloist can bring to it. Tamestit was fully up to the challenge: One followed his performance as if an engrossing mystery, curious to find out what happened next. The program closed with a lovely, songful rendition of the Sonata in E-flat for Viola and Piano (Op. 120, No. 2) by Johannes Brahms -- warmly autumnal music that seemed to complement the radiant afternoon weather.