MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Kavakos and Wang on Tour

 

kavakos-wangOn Friday Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang come to Seattle as part of their current tour. My interview with the Greek violinist for The Seattle Times:

Forget about art for art’s sake.

The virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos staunchly believes that artistic creativity is vital for a fully human life — and even for our survival.

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Filed under: pianists, Seattle Times, violinists

The Healing Bach

bach-violin-partitas-strings-magazine-e1477009169612A link to my feature story, in this month’s Strings magazine, on the inexhaustible appeal of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin:

Bach’s works for solo violin and cello are the Shakespearean monologues of the string world: The indefinable balance of technical mastery and interpretive insight they require is the touchstone of a great artist.

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Filed under: Bach, violinists

Shimmering Color and Incandescence

UPDATE:

Here’s the link to the complete piece.

My profile of violinist Augustin Hadelich and his Grammy Award-winning interpretation of Henri Dutilleux with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot will appear in the August 2016 issue of Strings magazine. A brief sample:

Augustin Hadelich just missed being in Los Angeles to receive his first-ever Grammy Award. He had even traveled to LA for a chamber concert the day before the ceremony but was already en route to his next engagement — with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Poole on England’s coast — when congratulations for winning the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo starting pouring in via social media.

 

 

Filed under: Henri Dutilleux, profile, violinists

Noah Bendix-Balgley in Seattle

bendix-balgley

photo © Nikolaj Lund

Among this year’s lineup of newcomers at Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2016 Summer Festival was American violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley — which gives you an idea of the level of luxury casting to which chamber music lovers have been treated.

The North Carolina native switched from his position as Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster  to become first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2014 — and he’s currently only 32.

For this edition of the Summer Chamber Festival, Bendix-Balgley took part in four programs, and I made sure to catch all of them. He made his debut here with Dvořák’s Op. 87 Piano Quartet in E-flat, joined by violist Jonathan Vincour, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianist George Li (I’m not exaggerating about the “luxury casting”).

This was the kind of playing that can change your attitude toward Dvořák, make you realize that we need to hear more and more of him, not just the warhorses. They sustained their intensity across the generous arc of the piece, not merely settling for its lyrical pleasures: the Piano Quintet as a page-turner epic novel.

For appearance no. 2, Bendix-Balgley joined Bion Tsang and Yura Lee (on cello) for Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat (K. 563), which made for a fascinating contrast with the overbrimming Romanticism of the Dvořák: the graceful restraint of his phrasing revealed emotional depths and the power of implication.

During his third concert Bendix-Balgley teamed with fellow violinist David Chan for Prokofiev’s remarkably far-ranging Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56. Along with expertly sounding its acoustical surprises and trompe-l’oreille effects, I admired how the musicians explored Prokofiev’s independence of line — of musical thought — from two similar voices, interrogating notions of “harmony.”

Beethoven was the focus of Bendix-Balgley’s final appearance (July 25), when he convened with SCMS artistic director James Ehnes (on first violin), Beth Guterman Chu and Rebecca Albers (violas), and Raphael Bell (cello) for the “Storm” Quintet in C major, Op. 29.

The Summer Festival is known for its mix of musicians who have regularly played for years as partners and ad hoc ensembles working together for the first time, and their account could have easily fooled listeners into taking this particular group for the former. By that I don’t mean only the level of risk-taking and involvement in the playing, but the conviction they seemed to share about the “Storm” Quintet’s emotional landscape and structural quirks.

Here’s a sample of Bendix-Balgley’s captivating, richly characterful playing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Seattle Chamber Music Society, violinists

Grammy-Winning Augustin Hadelich with the Seattle Symphony and Jesús López-Cobos

hadelich

Last night’s Seattle Symphony concert featured two guest artists of genuine distinction: Jesús López-Cobos, Conductor Emeritus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and former music director of Madrid’s Teatro Real, and the violinist Augustin Hadelich.

The latter is especially familiar to Seattle audiences as a longtime regular at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. This time he returned with a fresh crowning of laurels from last month’s Grammy Awards: he won Best Classical Instrumental Soloist for his recording of L’Arbre des Songes, a violin concerto by Henri Dutilleux. (So fresh, in fact, that, as Hadelich later mentioned, he still hasn’t received the gold-plated trophy he accepted in absentia.)

Hadelich recorded the Dutilleux with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot on their new in-house label, and the SSO and audience welcomed him back with obvious warmth, cheering before he’d played a note. (A couple days before, Hadelich had recorded a shorter Dutilleux piece for violin and orchestra — Sur le même accord — which is due for future release on the SSO label.)

But from the moment he did start playing — the vehicle was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto — Hadelich cast an absolutely irresistible spell. I kept trying to dissect his secret. There’s no shortage of flawlessly virtuosic young violinists, and being able to showcase your technique on the Kiesewetter Strad from 1723  doesn’t hurt.

Still, what made his performance unique was its authenticity. I mean that not in the sense of HIP, of period instrument ideology, but quite simply as a matter of musical and emotional honesty. Too often technique and sincerity (“playing from the heart”) are set up as opposite poles; operating from a stance of modesty, Hadelich grounds his technique — and it’s jaw-dropping fabulous, above all his masterful intonation and dynamics — with  sheer love of the musical message.

In the process Hadelich succeeded in dusting away the clichés, phony sentimentality, and sense of routine that frequently accompany the Tchaik. He kept his distance from the lapel-grabbing emotional sensationalism performers know guarantees excitement, but by the same token there was nothing cool or unduly “objective” here.

Overall Hadelich seemed to have in mind Tchaikovsky’s abiding affection for Mozart — always a tempering influence on his own tendencies toward excess. The violinist shaped the first movement’s main theme with a tasteful classicism. When deep pathos emerged, in the minor-key Canzonetta, it resonated powerfully.

Hadelich’s interactions with the players underscored his intense engagement in this music as a present-tense affair. I’d forgotten how beguiling Tchaikovsky’s woodwind lines are here. The clarinet — featuring the expressive work of guest player Gabriel Campos-Zamora — becomes virtually a second protagonist.

Throughout,  López-Cobos was interpretively in sync with Hadelich, encouraging clarity of shape and timbre from the players. He set a leisurely pace in the first movement but was able almost imperceptibly to quicken and then moderate it again, in accord with Hadelich’s phrasing choices. The finale was thrillingly breakneck, a rousing conclusion to a work in which Tchaikovsky seems to regain purpose and joie de vivre.

Hadelich returned for an encore: the Andante from J.S. Bach’s Second Solo Sonata in A minor. It was the epitome of this artist’s gift for fusing marvelous technique with incandescent expression: an early-21st-century version of what used to be called “the sublime.”

There was likewise a great deal to admire in Jesús López-Cobos’ work from the podium in this all-Russian program. It seemed to be connected by a “travel” theme (remember that Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto soon after his disastrous attempt at marriage while he was sojourning in Western Europe). As an opener, the Spanish conductor led a charming account of Glinka’s Summer Night in Madrid, rhythmically vivid and awash in cheerful colors.

It turned out to be a pretty accurate trailer for the characteristics he brought to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in the second half. Particularly in the wake of John Adams’s new masterpiece, Scheherazade.2, last week — I admit to approaching another encounter with Rimsky’s crafty Sultana with some skepticism. It bored me the last time I heard the SSO play this score (three years ago).

This time, I couldn’t get enough of it. López-Cobos coaxed a uniformly high-quality performance from the SSO. Magisterial and majestic, he crafted a beautifully proportionate interpretation of Rimsky’s score, giving just the right amount of time and emphasis to its components.

So rewarding were the musical allurements that he tempted the audience to forget about the half-hearted Arabian Nights program, for which the composer in any case expressed ambivalence. The narrative that mattered was how one texture and melodic idea gave way to the next. Threading this story together was the impressively phrased, gorgeous playing from Elisa Barston, the evening’s concertmaster.

–(c) 2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

Filed under: conductors, review, Seattle Symphony, Tchaikovsky, violinists

John Adams’s Extraordinary Night with the Seattle Symphony

JA-SeattleJohn Adams with the Seattle Symphony (photo credit: Chris Bennion)

Here’s my Seattle Times review of last night’s Seattle Symphony concert with John Adams at the podium:

The chance to hear a great living composer conducting his own music is rarity enough. But the new work John Adams has brought with him is rarer still: a composition created in the here-and-now that shows every sign of becoming part of the canon.

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Leila Josefowicz

Leila Josefowicz, photographed by Chris Lee, 5/13/15. Photo by Chris Lee

Filed under: John Adams, review, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times, violinists

In Presence of a Master

Current project:

Filed under: Bartók, violinists

“Dans le caractère populaire roumain”

A few evenings ago, members of the Seattle Symphony joined with some guests for its latest installment in this season’s series of chamber concerts.

I especially enjoyed hearing Alexander Melnikov as the pianist in a Shostakovich’ masterpiece (the Second Piano Trio, his memorial to Ivan Sollertinsky), just two days after the pianist’s triumph with the full SSO in playing Beethoven. The 19-year-old Leonard Bernstein’s Piano Trio and the Elliott Carter Woodwind Quintet of 1948 also stood out for me.

But the indisputable highlight came right at the center, with a riveting, soulful, hugely dramatic performance of George Enescu’s Op. 25 Sonata No. 3 in A minor for Violin and Piano from 1926 (titled “dans le caractère populaire roumain”). SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt and guest pianist Oana Rusu Tomai took all sorts of risks that paid off in this fascinating, epic-sounding piece.

And now I can’t get it out of my head. The YouTube performance above is from 1936 and features the brother-sister team of Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin.

Filed under: Enescu, Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich chamber music, violinists

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