Mercer-Lee Duo Benefit Concert @ Gallery 345 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, January 15, 2011. Gallery 345, Toronto.

This newly formed duo of cellist Rachel Mercer and pianist Vanessa May-lok Lee play well together, and at times make the music sing. Ms. Mercer, whose work I have enjoyed in many settings, plays with great concentration in a style that strikes me as bold and daring. Her demeanour when she plays is generally severe, but when she relaxes and smiles, an underlying humour shines out. Ms. Lee is new to me, yet she clearly has musicality and confidence in abundance. Her piano balances the cello nicely most of the time, especially her timing, though her dynamics sometimes seem a bit forceful.

They offered a program of 15 songs (to use iTunes lingo) of popular works grouped musically as Mañuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Españole, Sonata No. 1 in A major Op. 13 by Gabriel Fauré, Astor Piazzola’s Le Grand Tango, and three ‘jazz’ pieces by Nikolai Kapustin (b.1937). Piazzola’s Tango, the last piece on their program is where Ms. Mercer smiled, but I was smiling already because it rocked. The previous pieces, by Kapustin, allegedly jazz, brought to mind Ellington’s phrase, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” Jazz is about improvisation, is about freedom, and Kapustin’s work, despite a few bluesy bits, was kind of like swinging a dead cat.

Fauré wrote two cello sonatas late in his life, but this youthful work, Op. 13, from his post-student days, is a transcribed violin sonata. The first movement has lovely melodic ideas. Mercer-Lee played the andante sweetly, a beautiful imploring tone pouring out of the cello. The third movement showed off the Duo’s virtuoso technique and concluded by bringing a delightful flash of humour to this ‘serious’ music.

De Falla’s themes, sing, dance and tell stories in the styles of various Spanish regional traditions. They showcased the Duo’s versatility and power to transmit the pleasures of proven beauty. This is especially interesting in the context of Ms. Mercer’s interest in the music of new composers like Uri Brenner and Ernst Reijseger who holds and plays his cello like a guitar.  Althought the Duo subtitled this concert— ” Latin and Jazz Travels,”—their real musical journey may be just around the bend.

This was a Save the Children Benefit Concert, sponsored by the National Association of Japanese Canadians Endowment Fund.

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