- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

French-American relations took a needed turn for the better Sunday with the Washington debut of Gallic violist Antoine Tamestit at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Winner of the 2003 Young Concert Artists (YCA) international auditions, Mr. Tamestit displayed both a dazzling technique and the uncanny ability to choose an innovative and exciting program including German, English, and American compositions.

Born in Paris in 1979, Mr. Tamestit began playing the violin at the age of 6, but soon moved on to the viola, its darker, moodier cousin. A 1999 graduate of the Paris Conservatory, he earned his master’s degree at Yale.

Accompanied by pianist Ying-Chien Lin, Mr. Tamestit opened his program with perhaps the most interesting piece of the evening, Rebecca Clarke’s 1919 Sonata for Viola and Piano. Born in England in 1886, Miss Clarke had a difficult time of it as a composer, facing the usual turn-of-the-century limitations imposed on women and their careers. Nonetheless, she composed several major works, the most noted of which is this sonata. It is an astonishing work of mind-blowing power, synthesizing late impressionism with early modernism and seasoning both with a dash of Scriabin-esque weirdness.

The composition is a real workout for both instruments, with each challenging the other in exhausting duels of virtuosity. Mr. Tamestit unleashed a dramatic surge of romantic power in his performance. But he also proved an admirably self-effacing soloist, backing off his part when it was time for his accompanist to shine. And Miss Lin made the most of her opportunities, particularly in the tart, puckish Vivace.

Mr. Tamestit next presented the world premiere of a Sonata for Viola and Piano written by YCA composer-in-residence Daniel Kellogg. With each of its three movements based on individual works of art, the sonata largely retains the classical form while not being restricted by the usual rules of development. Mr. Kellogg’s composition showed flashes of brilliance, restrained at times, particularly in the first movement, by seemingly obligatory minimalist tropes.

Young composers are still trying to find their collective way out of the collapsing post-modernist wilderness, and Mr. Kellogg more than many others seems to have the tools and the ability to find a new way. Mr. Tamestit attacked this piece with crispness and precision, at times reminding the listener of Prokofiev’s steel-fingered pianistic technique.

The program’s first half concluded with a graceful performance of Max Bruch’s Romanze.

Mr. Tamestit opened the recital’s second stanza with Paul Hindemith’s daunting Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1. Another thorny, percussive piece, the Hindemith confronts the soloist with numerous technical challenges. Mr. Tamestit was more than equal to the task, sawing away so furiously in the sonata’s second movement that he nearly ignited his bow. Many pieces for unaccompanied string instruments are too linear to have much musical interest for the average concertgoer. But Mr. Tamestit found hidden wells of meaning in this piece and was able to sell each of its difficult four movements.

The concert concluded with a lovely performance of Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in E Flat Major, Op. 120, originally written for the clarinet. A subdued, mellow, contemplative work from the composer’s twilight years, the work would not seem an intuitive choice for an up-and-coming young violist. Once again, though, it allowed Mr. Tamestit to display his musical maturity. He clearly understood and expressed the composer’s warm sense of memory tinged with melancholy and regret.

Mr. Tamestit and Miss Lin played as an encore Alexander Glazounov’s bittersweet “Elegy,” which afforded the violist perhaps the concert’s best showcase for the real sweetness of tone that can be coaxed out of this instrument.

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