If you didn’t know that violinist Phillip Setzer and pianist Gilbert Kalish had spent their distinguished careers as chamber musicians and not as soloists, their performance at the Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium on Saturday would have been a giveaway. There was no sense here of the piano as accompanist or of one player following the other. The two were of a single mind, playing together on the front end of the beat in the opening of the Ravel “Sonate” and in the descending scale at the beginning of the Beethoven Op. 30, No. 2 Sonata, but backing off ever so slightly just before they hit bottom.
Clearly, Setzer had no qualms about letting his lines speak powerfully in the quietest possible voice — the opening Ives “Largo” and the middle Adagio movement of Lan-In Winnie Yang’s Sonata settled that. And, just as clearly, Kalish was not reluctant to lean into some of the wonderfully pianistic moments that both the Beethoven and the Lan-In sonatas offered, and to roll with their opulence.
The duo appeared here as part of the Smithsonian Associates’ Emerson Quartet Series; Setzer is an Emerson founding member. But this program arose more organically from the association Setzer and Kalish have as colleagues in the Stony Brook University music faculty that is overseeing Lan-In’s doctoral studies. (Her sonata, dedicated to her two professors, was premiered there on Friday.) The first of her sonata’s three movements is full of stern declamation, a few nicely used but never pursued plucks inside the guts of the piano and a sense of serious purpose. A short and lyrically sweet second movement leads to a whimsical third full of echoes of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. It is clear that Lan-In has a lot to say and it will be good to see her find a distinctive voice.
The Ravel was delicious — blues offered up in coat and tie — and, throughout, Setzer’s bow arm was a miracle of delicacy and precision.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.