By Michael Johns
USCB Chamber Music greets the momentous year of 2024 with calming and inspiring music. For the Sunday, January 28, 5:00pm concert, Artistic Director Andrew Armstrong has put together a program of Baroque dance, blistering virtuosity and two timeless American classics, pairing them with a piano trio of elegiac beauty and expressive melodrama. To bring these extraordinary works to the stage he has invited two exceptional artists new to the series: violinist Kevin Zhu and cellist Jan Vogler.
The program begins with J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. I in G Major, BWV 1007, a work comprised of a prelude and five stylized dances. Described as music “wherein a man has created a dance of God,” the first suite—perhaps the most well known of the six—is unquestionably studied and performed by every aspiring cellist. Next are two short solo-violin works that are not performed by striving violinists: Nicoló Paganini’s Caprices: No. 1, “The Arpeggio” and No. 24, Tema (Quasi Presto) e Variazioni. The technical challenges of these works are held in awestruck wonder by the amateur and sweat-inducing fear by the professional. Once the air clears and the excitement has dissipated, mellow good feeling will return with Henry Mancini’s 1960 classic Moon River, arranged for cello and piano. The text by Johnny Mercer recalls pleasant memories of gently flowing rivers from his Savannah childhood. The lush, rich baritone quality of the cello is ideally suited to evoke Mancini’s wistful musical atmosphere. The first half concludes with a celebratory 100th-anniversary tribute to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, arranged for solo piano. One of Andrew Armstrong’s signature pieces, he included it on his newly-released, USCB Chamber Music-supported solo album, In Blue. The swing, joy, sass, soaring-melodies and foot-tapping syncopations of this work has never gone out of style and Andy has the expertise, temperamant, and personal love for the music to make it sound as fresh as when George Gershwin himself debuted it in 1924.
The second half of the program is dedicated to a single work, Piotr Tchaikovsky’s monumental Piano Trio in A minor, Opus 50. Written as a memorial tribute to pianist, friend, and long-time mentor Nikolai Rubinstein, this work is one-of-a-kind creation that occupies its own unique niche within the standard 19th-century European trio repertoire. In the manner of most elegies, it arches from sadness, beginning with a profoundly sorrowful opening cello theme, drifts into sparkling, nostalgic memories of the dedicatee’s life, then slowly transforms into a funeral march. This is a deeply evocative work that is thrilling to hear and transformative to experience. It reminds us that music can drill down into deeper psychological levels than speech alone, a realm where inexpressible emotions can be recognized, acknowledged, integrated, and brought into coherent focus through the expressive gift of music.
American violinist Kevin Zhu has amassed an outstanding record of concert performances and
competition wins since he began playing violin at age three. Praised for his “awesome technical command and maturity” (The Strad) and “absolute virtuosity almost blinding in its incredible purity (L’ape musicalle), Kevin has established himself as a leading figure among the next generation of musicians, astonishing audiences with his peerless technical mastery and inimitable artistic voice. Cellist Jan Vogler has a distinguished career that has brought him together with renowned conductors and internationally acclaimed orchestras around the world. With 20 Sony Classical CDs and the directorship of several European Music Festivals to his credit, the New York Times has praised his “soulful, richly hued playing” and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung grants him the ability “to make his cello speak like a singing voice,” a compliment surely aided by his Stradivari ‘Ex Castelbarco/Fau’ 1707 cello.
Artistic Director, pianist, host, and chamber-music luminary Andrew Armstrong returns to dazzle, entertain, and enlighten Beaufort audiences. Rehashing his many impressive pianistic accomplishments is becoming commonplace but by itself these performance feats do not present a full picture of what the man means to this series. A look behind the curtain: On the Wednesday prior to last December’s concert the Barbican Quartet ran into visa problems and could not enter the US, which hollowed out the Sunday program. Andy made dozens of calls/texts around the world to find a replacement of the quality he thinks Beaufort deserves. In the meantime, he was on the road, performing both afternoon and evening concerts. By Friday he decided the best option was to present a solo recital. Nothing to it. Just another day at the office. He arrived in Beaufort on Saturday, ready to practice throughout the day so as to not let his “home-away-from-home” audience down the next day. These responsibilities were all handled with his usual unflappable good humor. The concert turned out to be a rousing success; through Andy’s agency lemons had been distilled into succulent lemonade.
Attend the concert and become part of the experience. Great music played at the highest level of technical excellence and deepest level of emotional engagement is made even greater with an intently engaged audience in attendance. There are three ways to enjoy the concerts: In-Person and virtually by Live-Stream and On-Demand. All virtual concerts are professionally produce, creating great viewing opportunities. On-Demand is accessible four days after the concert and available to view at your leisure for three weeks. For concert, event, or ticket information, go to www.uscbchambermusic.com or call 843-208-8246, Monday through Friday. The concert is Sunday, January 28, 2024, 5:00pm at the USCB Center for the Arts, 801 Carteret Street in the downtown historic district.