Musical Storytelling

Art is about storytelling, and storytelling is about relationships: to oneself, to another, to a place, an idea, a god.  Music is the most abstract art, its storytelling qualities often hard to discern.  Yet we need only listen, for even music is about relationships: one note to another, one instrument to another, melodies and harmonies interacting and connecting in the limitless medium of space.  And in these relationships, these musical shapes, we can hear stories.

A fantastic journey of musical storytelling was presented last Friday at All Saints Church, in Carmel.  The husband-and-wife duo Edward Arron (cello) and Jeewon Park (piano) presented a traditional concert, featuring well-known composers and performing with commitment, polish and flair.  Yet what emerged, for me, was a sequence of musical meditations on how two people, two voices, can relate to one another.

In Mendelssohn’s op. 17 “Variations Concertantes,” the communication between the two voices was largely amicable and equal, as the cello and piano traded sweetly romantic melody lines back and forth.  At one striking moment, however, Arron played a long, sustained A note while Park busied herself developing an elaborate theme on the piano.  That long A note, played for many measures, sounded to me like the musical equivalent of listening, of waiting patiently, supportively, while one’s partner, who may have a lot to say, goes on and on.

I was not familiar with the Sonata in C Minor, op. 32, by Camille Saint-Saëns, but its unsettled, agitated, at times skittery energy reminded me of the dancing skeletons in his “Carnival of the Animals.”  Here the storytelling evoked not so much a conversation as a joint instrumental effort to plunge forward, hurrying and side-stepping obstacles along the way.  The effect was more orchestral than is typically found in chamber music, as the combined sounds of the two instruments seemed to merge as if to form a third instrument, whose sole purpose was to find its way amidst considerable turbulence to the crashing resolution of the final C-minor chord.

Another sonata, this one in G Minor (op. 19), by Rachmaninoff, displayed the Russian composer’s signature atmosphere of moody charm, created by a ceaseless shifting between major and minor tonalities, as if the notes were layers, each sliding above and then below the other, moving and merging with perpetual instability.  People like Rachmaninoff’s music because it reminds them of the human paradox, how the heart can hold deep joy and deep sadness at the same time.  It was a beautiful, passionate performance.

The most interesting work on the program, played after the Mendelssohn, was “Fratres,” by the living Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.  Pärt has arranged “Fratres” for a number of musical combinations; this was the first time I heard it for cello and piano.  It was a haunting piece, in which the two instruments played music so highly contrasting they seemed to be playing on opposite sides of a great landscape.  There were distant bell-like ringings from the piano as the cello moved through a series of exploratory musical pulses, now fast, now drawn out.  The effect was mesmerizing.  If there was a relationship here, perhaps it was our relationship to time, and space, and the mystery of what they contain.