Clarinet virtuoso Anthony McGill, who performed at the first Obama inauguration, gave a nod to the political moment during his performance Thursday at the Kennedy Center by speaking to the power of music “to bring people together,” a gesture the audience seemed to appreciate.
The concert itself — a trio program with pianist Inon Barnatan and cellist Alisa Weilerstein — was on the level one would expect from such illustrious names, though with small flaws. Weilerstein got lost momentarily near the beginning of the Brahms Op. 114 trio, and McGill didn’t always match the pitch of the piano. Still, it was a pleasure to hear three singular artists displaying their considerable wares.
Barnatan was particularly imaginative in the rather foursquare Beethoven Op. 11 trio, a relatively slight piece that the pianist elevated with creative sound-worlds in each episode. And with the lid fully raised, he never once swamped the cello, a perpetual problem in these works. McGill is a wonder. He can play so softly at the very top of his register that the sound sometimes disappeared in the hum of the hall’s lights. Elsewhere, the fireworks seemed as if nothing could be easier. Weilerstein, one of the busiest solo cellists in the world, confounds traditionalists with her unorthodox positioning of both hands, and yet the results are pinpoint accurate and often richly expressive.
The evening’s principal offering was “short stories” by Joseph Hallman, written last year for these musicians. It’s a substantial five-movement piece in a kind of collage style, with movement titles meant to evoke a particular scenario. The faster numbers were more engaging than the slow ones, with dizzying metrical games that echoed Ligeti and late Copland. The second and last movements meandered, the ending an unsatisfying series of wan gestures. But Hallman is a talented composer who knows how to pull the ear along and leaves one wanting to hear more.