Sunday, March 28, 2010

Review: Johnson & Kong

March 28, Virginia Commonwealth University

When two musicians not known as drama queens essay the work of an emotionally fragile romantic composer, what sort of chemistry might be expected? That was the question I carried into a recital by violinist Karen Johnson and pianist Joanne Kong, who are marking the bicentennial of Robert Schumann’s birth with a series of recitals of his music and pieces by Brahms, Schumann’s sometime protégé, and Elgar, a composer who in his younger years called Schumann "my ideal."

In their performance at Virginia Commonwealth University – staged as a benefit for the Children’s Miracle Network Haiti Fund – Johnson and Kong bracketed their program with two rarely heard works of Schumann, the Sonata in A minor, Op. 105, and Fantasie in C major, Op. 131, both examples of this composer at his most passionate and lyrical.

Johnson, stepping out of her usual role as concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony, rode Schumann’s emotional currents securely and with feeling, but not too much feeling. The violinist sustained the long lines that are essential in romantic music, and maintained Schumann’s tricky balance between classical form and outpourings of expression. At her best, in the first movement of the sonata and toward the end of the Fantasie, she sounded as if she were conjuring the music on the spot.

Kong, a veteran accompanist, gave Johnson reliable, if rather deferential support in those works, and in Elgar’s "Chanson de nuit" and "Chanson de matin," a pair of sweetly lyrical miniatures that are probably the composer’s best-known chamber works. The pianist was a more equal partner in two movements of the "F.A.E." ("Frei aber einsam," or "free but lonely") Sonata, the intermezzo by Schumann and scherzo by Brahms.

Playing the third movement of Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, the most familiar music of the program, Kong showed that she shares Johnson’s interpretive approach, playing with heart, but not on the sleeve – more wistfully than yearningly.

Johnson and Kong will repeat the program at 3 p.m. April 11 at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton. Tickets: $5. Details: (540) 887-7294; They will give a broadcast performance on June 8 (Schumann’s 200th birthday) on WCVE-FM and its affiliates (time TBA). They will give another Richmond performance of the program at 7 p.m. June 9 at St. James’s Episcopal Church, 1205 W. Franklin St. Admission by donation. Details: (804) 355-1779;