Harbaugh and Posnak open season with wide-ranging program

By David Fleshler

Ross Harbaugh

The assets of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music were on display Saturday night in the first event of the new concert season.

On stage were two faculty members, pianist Paul Posnak and cellist Ross Harbaugh, a member of the school’s resident Bergonzi String Quartet. The men gave a finely performed recital that ranged from the classical style of early Beethoven to the sensual tones of Villa-Lobos. The performance took place in the university’s recently renovated Gusman Concert Hall, the venue given a full set of new seats that provide firm back support.

The performance was the first in the Sunday Afternoons of Music series, which in spite of its name, will be giving several Saturday performances this season. Doreen Marx, the organization’s executive director, made a plea for donations at the concert, saying that severe cuts in government grants had left her organization struggling to obtain the funds to keep going.

The program opened with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 5 No. 1, a work composed around the time of the Piano Concerto No. 1 and prior to Beethoven’s first set of string quartets. These early works can sometimes lead performers into extremes — either excessively brittle playing that emphasizes the classical elements or a brusqueness that looks forward to the Eroica Symphony.

But Posnak and Harbaugh sustained a lofty, almost patrician style that brought an unhurried feeling of largeness and breadth to the performance. Harbaugh played with a robust tone, neither too throbbing nor too astringent, that fit the music perfectly, and he brought a searching intensity to the long minor-key section of the first-movement Allegro. Posnak gave a smooth, effortless account of the difficult piano part.

Paul Posnak

Chopin’s Polonaise Brilliante for Cello and Piano gives the cellist the opportunity to play long romantic melodies, as well as show-offy technical elements like runs high up the fingerboard and rapid octaves. To his credit, Harbaugh didn’t allow the virtuoso fireworks to interfere with the essentially lyric nature of the work, playing the difficult passages accurately but with little sign of struggle. Even though the focus here was firmly on the cello, Chopin wasn’t one to let the pianist off with nothing to do, and the part was full of discreet but elaborate runs and arpeggios that Posnak tossed off with style.

No cello work is better known than Le Cygne (The Swan) from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, and Harbaugh gave a warm account of it, although he whiffed on one of the climactic high notes. More interesting was another work about a swan that was paired with it, Villa-Lobos’ Canto Do Cisne Negro (Song of the Black Swan). Over an undulating accompaniment in the piano, Harbaugh played a long, yearning melody that proved even more evocative and moving than the overfamiliar Saint-Saëns work.

Another cello showpiece, a transcription of Ernesto Lecuona’s Andalucia won Harbaugh a mid-piece round of applause when he had to strum the cello like a guitar.

Brahms’ Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 99, was the major work on the program. Composed just after his final symphony, the sonata is large and orchestral in scope.

Posnak, holding back through much of the recital, gave a grandly symphonic account of the piano part, with particularly fine playing in the frantic passages of the third movement Allegro passionato. Harbaugh generally played well but seemed to have difficulty with high notes, with a warbly tone and uncertain intonation, particularly in the second and fourth movements.

As an encore, they played Faure’s Après Un Rêve (After a Dream), dedicating it to the memory of the victims, first responders and other affected by the September 11 attacks.

Posted in Performances

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Sun Sep 11, 2011
at 12:35 pm
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