This afternoon Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) presented its annual concert supported by the Helen von Ammon Fund for Emerging Artists at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. The featured artist was seventeen-year old cellist Jeremy Tai, who had been a semi-finalist in the 2014 Irving M. Klein International String Competition. Like most competitors Tai has developed a relatively secure foundation of technical dexterity, erected, for the most part, on a keen sense of intonation with only a few barely noticeable lapses.
Observing Tai in action, one gets the impression that he can approach even the most complexly notated scores with the necessary patience and technical skill to realize ever mark on the page with laudable accuracy. Nevertheless, there is a problem in that very little of his performance showed signs of making a connection between all those marks and the music they were intended to convey. He seemed to be at his best in performing the third (Andante) movement from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 19 sonata in G minor (accompanied by pianist Miles Graber). He certainly had no problems phrasing Rachmaninoff’s prolonged melodic lines. On the other hand, while his account of the dynamic markings may have been a dutiful one, he never seemed capable of establishing just where the climax of the movement was, preferring just to let strict obedience to the notation carry him from beginning to end.
Nevertheless, his approach to Rachmaninoff was the high point of his program. If he could not deliver that Andante movement as a narrative arc, the many dimensions of Gallic emotional dispositions in the first two movements of Francis Poulenc’s sonata totally eluded him. The same could be said for that fertile middle ground between the concert hall and the night club that Astor Piazzola explored in “Le Grand Tango.”
Weakest, however, was his decision to open with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1009 solo cello suite in C major. Granted, there is the possibility that Bach wrote his six cello suites for pedagogical purposes. However, we know from other examples of his pedagogical repertoire that learning to make music was not just a matter of honoring the marks on paper. Indeed, the evidence is that the pedagogical works that Bach prepared for his own sons were intended to cultivate their capacity for in-the-moment invention during performance, instead of slavish “decoding” of a notation intended to suggest, rather than dictate. Most evident in Tai’s performance was his inability to make any of the dance movements sound like dances (something that Bach himself seems to have taken very seriously). Still, even the one movement that was not a dance movement, the opening Prelude, sounded more like a five-finger exercise in which assigning each note to its proper place was all that mattered.
Would von Ammon not have wanted us to expect more from an emerging artist?