José Franch-Ballester – incredible, and that’s no joke

Published 1:20 pm Thursday, March 10, 2011

by Rita E. Landrum

How do you keep an oboe from being stolen? Put it in a clarinet case. How do you make a saxophone sound like a clarinet? Miss a lot of notes. How do you get a clarinetist to play louder? You can’t!

I’m not the only one who remembers clarinet jokes and I wasn’t alone in wondering how Tryon Concert Association’s February 25 concert could hold our attention for two hours with a clarinetist and a pianist as the sole purveyors of food for our souls.

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Noting that the concert would open with Von Weber’s “Grand Duo Concertante,” I braced my-self for wild honky runs interwoven with torrents of sixteenth notes whooshing out of the piano. I worried that the beautiful slow movement might sound like a hoot owl moving from limb to limb in a tall tree.

Well, Franch-Ballester controlled his unearthly sounds meticulously. Pianist Anna Polonsky was a match in every way. The way the sun rising behind a thick layer of clouds hints at a day that has already arrived, Franch-Ballester’s tones seemed to register in my brain before my ears were sure they’d heard.

The B-flat clarinet’s huge range has always been intriguing, but few performers can make truly beautiful sounds at the extremes of this range. Franch-Ballester exploited the possibilities and made appropriate choices from his own complex palette to rumble or roar, caress or chide.

I scanned the program for the inevitable transcription and there it was – Debussy’s famous piano piece, “Reverie.” Franch-Ballester and Polonsky created an ethereal daydream – a trance, really – so exquisite I wanted it to last awhile longer. I can’t think of a time when I’ve been so grateful to hear something so familiar.

On the heels of that dreamy piece, we heard Debussy’s equally dreamy “Premiere Rhapso¬die for Clarinet and Piano.” Composed as a test piece for Paris Conservatory (on whose Board Debussy served), it is technically difficult for both instruments and served well for the conservatory’s exams and auditions. With extremely soft high notes and challenging fingerings required, it is a test indeed, but is also a fine piece worthy of the emotional investment this amazing pair has made.

Bohuslav Martinu composed his “Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano” in 1956, three years before his death at age 68. That we are guilty of calling early to mid 20th century compositions “modern” is forgivable in light of how fresh and innovative this piece seems so many years beyond its original context. Franch-Ballester had certainly found a number of ways to show us jokesters that a clarinet in the right hands is capable of anything – including holding our attention indefinitely. Martinu’s fast syncopation, quick alternating spurts from each instrument, and prescient harmonies were performed flawlessly.

The locals will like knowing that Kenji Bunch (b.1973) studied with, among others, Eric Ewazen, composer and teacher at Juilliard who remains unafraid of creating expressive tonal music. (Ewazen made two appearances at ICC-Polk thanks to Carole Bartol.) Bunch’s “Cookbook for Clarinet and Piano” was composed for Franch-Ballester. The one movement on the program – La Ultima Noche en La Casa del Flamenco (The Last Night at the House of Flamenco) – was a captivating example of a young performer and a young composer in a “prime” of sorts, where being a ham and a virtuouso at the same time works without embarrassing either. It was a brilliant piece that memorialized a special evening in the composer’s life and was, surely, performed as brilliantly as he’d imagined it could be.

The program closed with “Four Rags for Two Johns” by John Novacek (b. 1962). The still Spanish Franch-Ballester and Russian émigré Polonsky seemed as American as Ragtime itself. Both young performers took advantage of their “prime” of sorts and were unabashedly hammy and virtuosic without ever crossing the boundaries of good taste. A rare immediate standing ovation was their reward; an encore waltz was ours.