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MUSIC REVIEW : Sonnenberg, Licad: Intimate Fare From Odd Couple

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

On paper, it looked like a fascinating concert. In the too wide, too open spaces of the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Monday, it turned out to be a major miscalculation.

The enterprising Philharmonic Society had programmed an intimate evening of sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to be performed by two extraordinarily talented young musicians: the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the pianist Cecile Licad. So far, so provocative and so sophisticated.

Everyone knew, of course, that Segerstrom Hall--with its 3,000 seats and distinctly indistinct sound properties--would be a less-than-ideal venue for the fragile subtleties of chamber music. Several inspired artists proved long ago, however, that the inherent housing problem need not be disastrous.

The interpretive disparities between Salerno-Sonnenberg and Licad threatened to be more vexing. The violinist, after all, is known to be dramatic (some might say overwrought) and fiercely independent (some have said mannered). The pianist, on the other hand, usually tends toward the lyrical (some might say placid) and conventional (a few have said dull).

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One takes chances, and the other doesn’t.

Neither, unfortunately, lived up to her reputation on this frustrating occasion. For all her expressive urgency and heated virtuosity, Salerno-Sonnenberg played as if she were making music just for herself in a very small room. For all her tasteful restraint and cool bravura, Licad played as if she were practicing nocturnes in a very large hall.

The violin sounded thin and wispy except in moments of extreme agitation. Then it sounded scratchy.

The piano sounded loud and tubby. In moments of extreme agitation, it sounded louder and tubbier.

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One was hard put to isolate the blame. Was it a matter of hostile acoustics? Faulty instruments? Were the protagonists distracted, distressed, tired, cranky? Was it just one of those unavoidable off nights?

Possibly all of the above.

Under the circumstances, one had to be grateful for fleeting favors: the graceful give-and-take of melodic ideas in the andante of Mozart’s B-flat Sonata, K. 454, otherwise perfunctory; the febrile arguments in the allegro finale of Beethoven’s C-minor Sonata, Opus 30; the arching, aching legato phrases of the slow movement in Brahms’ D-minor Sonata, Opus 108.

Still, too much seemed off balance. Too much seemed out of focus.

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One waited in vain for crucial style distinctions. One longed for substantial force from the violin, and for telling nuance from the piano.

One didn’t hear much charm until Kreisler’s “Liebeslied,” a dated bonbon that served as the first encore. (Heifetz’s transcription of the March from Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges” came next.) It was too little, too late.

The non-capacity audience, ignoring a request printed in the program, began the evening by clapping after the first movement of the Mozart. Salerno-Sonnenberg seemed startled. Those dauntless celebrants who stayed to the end mustered a semi-standing ovation.

A good time was had by some.

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