Do Savannnah

SMF Daily Review: Beethoven sonatas and Brazilian soul

  • Clarice Assad

SMF Daily Review: Beethoven sonatas and Brazilian soul

02 Apr 2015

Between 2005 and 2007, on tour in the U.S. and Europe, Paul Lewis famously performed all 32 of Ludwig van Beethoven's piano sonatas. On April 1 at Trinity United Methodist Church, in the last of the Savannah Music Festival​'s piano recital series, the Englishman merely endeavored to play the final trilogy of sonatas by the German composer (Opus 109-111), which many consider the greatest in the repertoire.

Known for his fastidious preparation, facile technique and emotional intensity, Lewis seemed demonstrably cautious as he embarked on the first sonata, but quickly found his pace and wowed the SMF audience through all three masterworks. The highlight for this reporter was the third sonata with its unusual two-movement format. The first movement is mostly driven at a quick tempo, followed by a theme-and-variations section, which lasts about twice as long as the previous movement and is played at a relatively slow tempo. The sonata roils with wildly varying tones, moods and colors – it's Beethoven exuberant and playful at the end of his life, still subverting convention, still presciently insightful. Enlivened by Lewis' dramatic gestures – sweeping arms and hands, his entire body sometimes popping off the bench as if yanked up by the inspiriting music – the performance was just as fascinating to watch as it was to hear.

In the evening, at Lucas Theatre for the Arts, a program titled “The Brazilian Soul” featured SMF Acoustic Music Seminar director Mike Marshall and Choro Famoso paired with Brazilian sensation Clarice Assad and Off the Cliff. Holy choro, Batman! What a fabulous concert, soft and sweet and warm and lovely, just like the girl from you-know-where. The music was rife with melodic invention, rhythmic energy and improvisational interplay within and between both bands.

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Master mandolinist Marshall and cohorts Andy Connell (reeds), Brian Rice (percussion) and Colin Walker (guitar) cranked things up with a short set celebrating choro, an irresistibly dance-able song form that originated in Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th century. Built on syncopation, counterpoint and the multicultural influences engendered by the slave trade, Marshall described choro as “the ragtime of Brazil.”

Next up, Assad sauntered onto the stage and, accompanied by percussionist Keita Ogawa, immediately riveted the audience's attention with an entrancing rendition of a song that was part jazzy folk tune, part ambient soundscape and part Portuguese scat singing/beatboxer throwdown. Guitarist João Luiz Rezende then took Ogawa's place, accompanying Assad in a samba-tinged duet. A couple of jazz-inflected songs followed with the Off the Cliff contingent, rounded out by bassist Shin Sakaino.

The evening's revelry was capped off by an all-star jam session with members of Choro Famosa and Off the Cliff riffing back and forth in the Brazilian version of a bluegrass hoedown.

Earlier in the day, I stopped for an iced coffee at Gallery Espresso. Sitting at the sidewalk table next to me was a middle-aged man with a ragged red ponytail and thick, ropy arms who looked like he just stepped off a brigantine sailing ship. He was playing a lute, which looked like it dated to the Elizabethan era and had endured more than a few stormy journeys. When I leaned over to drop a dollar into the serenader's battered lute case, he brushed away the offering. “I don't do that,” he said. “I'm just trying to ward off the arthritis.”