New York's concert season at midpoint: some highlights recalled

It is the nominal midpoint of the concert season here, and it seems as good a time as any to touch on a few events that have occurred in the various concert halls of Manhattan that were of particular merit or interest.

Ax/Kim/Ma Trio

There are two approaches to trios. Either three musicians decide to devote their careers to an ensemble, ever honing and refining their collective approach to the literature, or else prominent soloists decide to devote a chunk of time as frequently as possible (usually once a year) to work up a program which they then take across the country, refining as they go.

The Beaux Arts Trio is the sterling example of the former approach, the Ax/Kim/Ma Trio the stunning model for the latter. But performances by the stellar Ax/Kim/Ma trio are the best of both worlds. Pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Young-Uck Kim, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are all fiercely dedicated to chamber music; they lavish a concentration on their not-quite annual trio time that is unprecedented in this sort of gathering.

Their Avery Fisher Hall concert featured a Haydn D major trio (H. XV:16), Mendelssohn's Second Trio (C minor, Op. 66) and Brahms's First Trio (B major, Op. 9). The sense of each piece was impressively captured, but the Brahms received one of those intense, searing performances that only happen when three fine musicians are all working on the same wavelength. It is almost criminal that no recordings are yet forthcoming of this finest trio of the day, and already one of the greats of any age. Marilyn Horne

Just before announcing her first encore, Marilyn Horne likened giving a recital at the Met to singing in a bathtub. Whereas one does not feel as if one is sitting in a bathtub at the Met, it is clear that the 3,800-seat house is peculiarly well suited to voice recitals when the recitalist is as skilled and nuanced as Miss Horne.

Her program began with some Handel arias - including an electrifying account of Orlando's ''Fammi combattere.'' Miss Horne then switched to Schumann, proving just as adept at plumbing the depths of his Romantic utterances in ''Frauenliebe und -leben'' as she was at communicating Orlando's florid Handelian battle cry.

Four French songs were highlights all, from the insistent refrain of Bizet's ''Adieux de l'hotesse Arabe'' through two Duparc offerings, to Gounod's ''Repentir'' (known in English as ''O Divine Redeemer''), magnificently rendered. Four Spanish Christmas lullabies by Cuban composer Joaquin Nin made the perfect official ending to a remarkable afternoon. Four encores (all announced - and how refreshing that is!) were bonbons to an adoring audience, with a quiet, haunting singing of ''Silent Night'' the final one.

Miss Horne, the consummate mistress of her instrument, can draw a huge audience into an intimate moment - a feat possible only for a singer used to large expanses.

That she had the assistance of James Levine throughout was a major advantage. He proved at once a sensitive accompanist and a strong presence, partnering in the true sense of the word with unusually fine results. James VanDemark

It cannot be easy playing a new concerto you have only received in toto a scant time prior to the world premiere. Such was James VanDemark's plight as he offered the world premiere performance of Gian Carlo Menotti's Double Bass Concerto with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic.

Mr. VanDemark is not a particularly tall man, though he plays a particularly tall instrument. He appears to be in a constant struggling embrace with his instrument, and as he skittered through the florid cellolike solo part, he ceaselessly amazed for the way he was able to make the instrument sing and caress.

Menotti has not really helped the soloist much, for the central melodies of the piece are rather foursquare and only faintly echo the composer at his best. But VanDemark managed the first two movements with a genuine virtuoso's flair.

The last movement was something else - hurriedly finished by the composer, and hurriedly learned by soloist and orchestra. The notion of a double bass concerto is a good one. Here's hoping Mr. VanDemark will get some more commissions for his unwieldy yet appealing instrument. Jessye Norman

There are two types of recital singers - those who favor the hushed, intimate approach, and those who favor the grand gesture. Soprano Jessye Norman, today's grandest vocal talent, clearly fits into the second category, yet she manages most convincingly to communicate interior moods and hushed whispers.

Her Carnegie Hall recital is, one hopes, becoming an annual event here. From first entrance in a startling velvet gown with a huge red/orange ruffle up the back, over her right shoulder and down the front, she had the audience primed for magic. And be it in a vital, propulsive ''Gretchen am Spinnrade'' (Schubert) , through any one of the five Wagner ''Wesendonck Leider,'' through four Duparc songs to the concluding Satie set, Miss Norman was a model of variety, of moods projected, of atmosphere projected.

It was a well-constructed program, with the jewel being the Duparc quartet. In all four, Miss Norman was at her very best, with her clarion diction, her superb control of a huge instrument, and her ability to draw an audience in with a whisper and then pin them to the backs of their seats with a mighty outburst. Phillip Moll was the discreet accompanist. Four encores, including two spirituals, concluded the evening, which ended up being the now-usual love-feast Miss Norman's fans and admirers rightfully lavish on her these days.

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