The return to pre-pandemic “normal” attendance levels for Boston-area concerts seems to be proceeding in fits and starts. At many of the major Symphony Hall concerts this fall, the house has seemed indistinguishable from years past, save the presence of optional masks in the audience. Move slightly away from those big-ticket events, however, and the scene has not yet fully recovered. Celebrity Series subscriptions for the current season are down by a striking 50 percent, according to its director, Gary Dunning, though its single-ticket sales are making up for a portion of that drop. People are still turning out for their very favorite audiences and ensembles, Dunning said, but for less well-known groups, concert-goers seem less inclined to push through a certain lingering cautiousness.
That theory would perhaps explain the surprisingly modest turnout at Jordan Hall for Saturday night’s performance by the Junction Trio. This is a group founded in 2015 with stellar musical credentials, yet it is hardly a household name. Those who did attend were treated to a night of alert, vibrant performances of works by Ravel, Schumann, Thomas Morley, and Amy Williams.
Williams’s “Bells and Whistles,” a Celebrity Series co-commission, opened the program. It draws inspiration from the fairground organ and from the notion of “master” clocks that control other clocks, dictating the timing of various bells and whistles. These are represented fairly directly in the music, through pizzicato and col legno effects (the latter has the player strike the string with the wooden stick of the bow). The piece grows turbulent with piano-driven waves of sound punctuated by train whistle-like chords from the piano and violin. The Junction players gave it an exacting and committed performance.
Celebrated piano trios by Ravel and Schumann (No. 1, Op. 63) made up the bulk of Saturday’s program, and Junction Trio delivered sweepingly expressive performances of both works, attuned to the finer nuances of articulation yet also unified in their emotive, high-octane approach. At the piano, Conrad Tao was a formidable, often dominant force, his playing rhythmically free and at times virtually symphonic in sonority. The cellist Jay Campbell played with a firm yet flexible tone, and violinist Stefan Jackiw was resourceful throughout and especially eloquent in the stormy climaxes of the Schumann. Between the two trios, the Junction offered an arrangement of Thomas Morley’s 16th-century “Christes Crosse,” which functioned as a kind of playfully good-natured palate cleanser, dashed off with casual aplomb.
The program was fully a success on its own terms, yet I couldn’t help but suspect these three exceptionally creative musicians, aptly described in the trio’s own bio as “visionary next-generation artists,” might in fact have something more ambitiously visionary and next-generation-ish in their collective wheelhouse. Despite some vaguely unusual stage lighting, this was a rather conventional piano trio program from a group with the potential to push the boundaries of the concert format in much more imaginative ways.
On Sunday afternoon, the Celebrity Series rented out Jordan Hall once more, this time for a solo recital by pianist Seong-Jin Cho. Born in 1994 in South Korea, Cho belongs to the same generation as the Junction players but is clearly pursuing a more intentionally traditional path as a virtuoso soloist of the older Romantic model. His career in this vein was launched by his 2015 victory at the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, and he appears frequently with top-tier orchestras. This summer he delivered a sensational Brahms Second Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood.
That success seems to have bolstered Cho’s local reputation, and Jordan Hall was well-attended on Sunday for his local recital debut. For the occasion, he assembled a program that included two Suites by Handel, Brahms’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel,” and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. His performance overall, true to expectations, was a tour de force in which a seemingly natural musicality was wedded to an astonishingly fluid technique.
Cho’s Handel Suites (Nos. 2 and 8) were gracefully dispatched if perhaps with an extra serving of Romantic dreaminess that softened this music’s stylistic contrast with the rest of the program. Pairing these suites with Brahms’s epic Handel Variations was a thoughtful touch, and the latter received a duly grand rendition, with each variation taking on a life of its own. Particularly impressive was his account of the closing fugue, which wedded formal clarity with visceral expressivity.
Cho gave an equally bravura performance of Schumann’s fiercely difficult Symphonic Etudes, and of the selections from Brahms’s Klavierstücke (Op. 76) that preceded them. The playing was supple and bold in equal measure. For its part, the audience was not about to let Cho leave without an encore, and he gamely obliged with two of them. Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise was a very generous offering, though its substantial length and high-Romantic register made it feel more like a continuation of the main recital program. Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of a Handel Minuet in G minor made a more vivid and welcome contrast — quiet, songful, glowing.
At Jordan Hall, Saturday night
SEONG-JIN CHO, piano
At Jordan Hall, Sunday afternoon
Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston