Cue the colored lights. Cue the dry-ice smoke wafting from above the stage to signify “atmosphere.” Cue the performers moving around the stage at unexpected moments and the thematic program of “lighter,” Spanish-themed music. The performance is called “Tango, Song and Dance.” It premiered Monday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, and it presents the spectacle of classical musicians trying to have fun.
Now forget all this ostensibly theatrical stuff, because the point is the music. And the music was delightful and well-played by three crack musicians led by the violinist Augustin Hadelich. Hadelich is a lovely, sunny soloist with a warmth and sparkle in his playing that translates to his stage persona. I can well understand his desire to explore different and perhaps more immediate ways of connecting with the audience. This performance wasn’t quite it, but it certainly offered some great music-making.
The program was built around André Previn’s three-part piece of the same name, which is at once light and fiendishly difficult, a great showcase for Hadelich’s articulate finger work, supported by Joyce Yang on the piano. It’s a slender reed on which to construct an evening, but the players made the most of it, with winking flashes of humor and embracing melody.
The biggest justification of the evening’s theme, though, was the inclusion of the guitarist Pablo Villegas — not a standard guest on a violinist’s recital. Guitar and violin proved to be a wonderful pairing, at least in this case — Villegas’s warm, easy sound complementing Hadelich’s timbre. There isn’t, of course, an extensive repertoire for this duo, although the two players are busy creating one — indeed, their recent recording, “L’Histoire du Tango,” includes other pieces I’d have been happy to hear them in here. What they did offer were five of De Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas,” which are so ubiquitous on vocal recital programs these days that I wasn’t sure much was added by a violin-guitar arrangement, though Hadelich’s playing let you almost hear the words through the vocal line. Piazzolla’s “Histoire du Tango,” originally written for flute and guitar but often played by a violinist, was here invigorated by the substitution, and proved, even for a listener whose appreciation of Piazzolla is usually muted, a highlight of the night.
Villegas’s solo turn was his opening, Rodrigo’s “Invocación y danza”; I would have been happy to hear him more. Yang shone in Ginastera’s “Danzas argentinas,” which was played with fluidity and flair. And Hadelich claimed the spotlight, literally, with the sixth of Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas, the last and the hardest, played with authority and delight.
Delight is really the secret to performance: not the slightly self-conscious stage business that aimed to make this evening more popular or accessible but actually conveyed the message that classical music needs special advocacy and doesn’t quite know how to do it. If the goal is really to reach the audience, why not go all the way, as so many musicians are doing, and actually create the kind of concert atmosphere that this performance was striving to evoke: Play in a smoky room, go on and offstage as the mood takes you, or chat with the audience? Indeed, my criticism of this evening is that it felt timid in its essay into theatricality: It didn’t go far enough. If you want to add visual elements or performative elements, commit to them and make some decisions about them; don’t just pay lip service to them, which was what seemed to be happening here. As a multimedia event, the evening left a lot to be desired. But I’m not sure this mattered all that much, since as a musical performance, it was, indeed, a lot of fun.
The show will have two further performances at festivals around the United States this summer. In Washington, the tango theme continues on Sunday when Choral Arts
presents a program called
“Tango! Soul and Heart.”