gilles vonsallel

Chamber Music Northwest review: Urban Energy

Duo pianists Anne-Marie McDermott and Gilles Vonsattel bring high intensity to dance-inspired music by Debussy, Stravinsky, and Barber.


“In a New York minute,” Chamber Music Northwest pianist Anne-Marie McDermott said, a passing phrase in the engaging back-and-forth she and fellow pianist Gilles Vonsattel offered the audience between works in their duet concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall the last Thursday evening in January. The drive and crackling energy the phrase calls to mind might well have been the motto for the evening.

Anne-Marie McDermott and Gilles Vonsatte performed at Portland State University. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Anne-Marie McDermott and Gilles Vonsattel performed at Portland State University. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The program, almost entirely dance-inspired or dance-related works, offered few opportunities for lollygagging, and the pianists got the biggest one right out of the way by switching the order of the first two numbers so that Claude Debussy’s youthful Petite Suite fronted for Samuel Barber’s worldly-wise Souvenirs. True, the first two movements of the suite offer mixed messages to performers. The tempo of “Aboard” (En bateau) is marked “Andantino,” which implies a lively walking pace, but the halting, aquatic figuration suggests a rather aimless drift instead. Similarly, the title “Her Retinue” (Cortège) suggests a stately scene, but the music is irrepressibly jaunty. The extra kick no doubt comes from the fact these two movements were inspired by Paul Verlaine poems  with the same titles, sedate vignettes made edgy with prurient observations.

In McDermott’s and Vonsattel’s hands, “Her Retinue” flashed and sparkled, but I would have liked more opportunity to drift in “Aboard.” (“Andantino” may not translate well from French to English, not surprising since the term was originally Italian. Another, well-known example is the tempo indicated for Debussy’s iconic “Reflections on the water”: “Andantino molto,” roughly, “Very ‘slightly andante,’” which confuses pianists to the point of imagining spreading ripples zipping along at a pace more suitable to water snakes.) “Menuet” moved right along also, yet managed to evoke a mysterious past. “Ballet” on the other hand seemed snatched right out of the dance halls and bright lights of its time, newly electrified 1880s Paris.

The pair’s performance of Barber’s work from the 1950s kept up this urban energy, yet with such sensitivity on the keys and deftness on the pedals that even in the room’s bright acoustics, a wealth of attractive detail sparkled throughout. The six dances which make up the set don’t stray much from the standard structures and chord progressions of their pop-culture models, but occasional rhythmic surprises – groups of three in the Two-Step, groups of five in the Waltz, and nearly unpredictable accents in the Schottische – as well as insouciant melodies that often seem to orbit around the “right notes” without ever hitting them, impart an off-kilter forward impetus. McDermott and Vonsattel didn’t linger much in the sweeter, subtler passages, but they brought off these distinctive Barberian inventions with exuberance.

That was it for urbanity and froth. After intermission, the pair turned to the truly barbarian, none other than the uber-Dionysian culmination of Igor Stravinsky’s early career, The Rite of Spring. While the piano duet version may not have the thunder and lightning of the famous orchestral work, it has its own concentrated ferocity, one that stunned a small room full of select listeners including Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev, when Stravinsky, partnering with none other than Debussy, first played through the work in public a little over a century ago – unfortunately long before the era of bootlegs. Even with Stravinsky being at best a competent pianist and Debussy’s youthful virtuosity well in the past, what a glorious noise they must have made!

McDermott and Vonsattel certainly made a glorious noise as they charged unfazed through the physically punishing score. At the beginning, when nature wakes up in all her springtime cacophony, and during the nocturnal tableau at the beginning of the second half, I wanted less drive and a greater sense of mystery somehow. But the whirlwinds of fingerstrokes which led up to each ecstatic climax were for the most part astonishingly precise, and carved out each striking gesture and sonority to full advantage. Nor did the pianists let all the excitement throw off their perfect synchrony at the portentous yet deadly quiet “Kiss of the Earth” chord, the bugaboo of many a frenetic performance. The hardest work always comes in the final climax, but they never let up or lost focus, and there was no escape for the proverbial sacrificial virgin. Their energy was impossible to resist, and the audience was on its feet – in a New York minute – for a noisy and well-deserved ovation.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on Cascadia Composers’ board of directors.