There is something about the duet concept that creates a possibility for magic to happen. It can be more demanding and rewarding for both audience and performer, but when it works -- like when pianist Fred Hersch and clarinetist Anat Cohen graced the stage at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library on June 9 -- the results can be transformative.
Hersch began “Old Devil Moon” with quirky rhythmic gestures, prodding Cohen into a patient soliloquy that capitalized on her warm, liquid tone and elastic phrasing before grabbing the baton for an episode of dense baroque counterpoint.
Several inventive Hersch originals followed, beginning with the lush ballad “Floating,” where Cohen’s plaintive 3 a.m. blue wail pulled nicely against the orchestral piano. This was followed by the Chick Corea-like Latin romp of “Duet,” where each musician scribed dense orbits into the brisk night air.
There was also a lovely nod to tradition with the stride-like arrangement of “After You’ve Gone,” where Cohen’s gleeful warbling led Hersch into building an intricately structured solo from scratch. “Certainty” was notable for its dark and delicate episodic sense of flow.
The highlight of the evening, for me at least, came during a drop-dead gorgeous reading of “For All We Know,” where Cohen pierced the veil of silence with a breathtaking emotional purity that had me hovering above my seat in an out-of-body reverie that did not ease up a micrometer when Hersch followed with a slow cascade of crystalline phrases in support of Cohen’s hushed cadenza.
It was a living, breathing masterclass in how to approach a ballad, and I walked away from the concert a different (and hopefully better) man. There are very few performance spaces in San Diego that can support such an intimate exchange -- which makes the Athenaeum all the more priceless.