Any regrets about abandoning the salubrious air and spring sunshine on Sunday were instantly dispelled by the musical electricity inside the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre. During the concert by two brilliant young musicians — cellist Jay Campbell and pianist Conor Hanick, presented by Washington Performing Arts — a sparking galvanic arc between cello and piano was all but visible.
The duo debuted a new work, co-commissioned by Washington Performing Arts and written for Campbell and Hanick by the composer, violinist and conductor David Fulmer. Fulmer will be 34 this year and has taught at Columbia University since 2009. His aural sensibilities have something like the acuity of a Boulez or a Bartók, and his new piece, “Original Wood,” made extraordinary demands, musically and technically, on the players. Fortunately, Campbell and Hanick are specialists in new music. Their energy, intelligence and imagination created an atmosphere in this 10-minute piece that kept the audience spellbound.
In fact, from the first sounds of Debussy’s late masterpiece, the 1915 Cello Sonata that opened the program, Campbell seized the audience’s attention in a grip that never let go. He and Hanick suggest a conversation in such complete sympathy and accord that they could almost complete each other’s sentences. Debussy’s second movement, “Serenade,” was a blend of stealth and whimsy, as though there was a lot of tiptoeing around in the garden before any real serenading could get underway. The finale took off in flight so exhilarating you forgot to keep an eye on the altimeter. Actually, once Campbell wraps himself around the cello, you’re willing to follow him anywhere.
That rich, full-throated cello sound had its greatest play in a surprising piece. Elliott Carter, whose death in 2012 at age 103 left American music a poorer place, is perhaps best known for music of extraordinary density and rhythmic complexity. “Elegy,” on the other hand, written when Carter was just 31, is straightforward and transparent almost to the point of delicacy. The hushed intimacy of Campbell and Hanick’s performance was gentle, poignant and deeply moving.
Brahms’s Second Sonata, Op. 99, had an appropriate symphonic heft and seriousness, its windswept, craggy peaks given their full scope. But more remarkable was the naturalness with which Campbell and Hanick narrated Brahms’s heroic drama, lending it cohesion and emotional credibility.
It is hard to characterize Campbell’s sound at the instrument, since it seems so perfectly tailored to each piece he plays. His athletic approach has nothing to do with display but stems from an effort to imbue every note with expression. The hand-in-glove ensemble he achieves in collaboration with Hanick is nothing short of breathtaking. Stravinsky’s witty, urbane “Suite Italienne” wrapped up their richly rewarding concert.
Rucker is a freelance writer.