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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Violin Variations

THE LAST PIECE I’D EXPECT TO SEE first on the program is Beethoven’s first violin sonata. In fact, I’m surprised to see this runt of litter anywhere, overshadowed as it is by the composer’s later works for the same instrumentation. It’s an example of Beethoven’s Mozartean roots, but it’s still Beethoven, and Anne Akiko Meyers mined it for its surprise and intensity.

Anne Akiko Meyers
Which was a harbinger of her approach to the works that followed. Her fascinating programming array otherwise was rooted in the 20th and 21st centuries, including pieces written at her behest.

Beethoven’s first sonata emerged from a tradition of letting the piano grudgingly share some of its sound world with the violin, although by the time he got hold of the form the partnership was gaining equality. The opening phrase features arpeggios that sound at home on both instruments, but the first movement’s exposition culminates in a chord-rich call-and-response that asserts the violin’s own identity – the more so because Meyers gave it no unwonted sentiment, even roughening the edges of the notes at times.

This was an effective contrast – and Beethoven’s music is all about contrast – with pianist Akira Eguchi’s role as a nimble virtuoso almost daring his music partner to keep up with his fleet-fingered fun.

Contrasts also characterized Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” a 1977 work that has been fitted to a variety of instrumental combinations, violin and piano being one of the most popular. There’s a mystical quality to Pärt’s later works thanks to his harmonic underpinnings; “Fratres” adds to that the stately sense of a chaconne, each variation separated by violin pizzicato, each also exploring a different quality of the instrument’s sound. Meyers and Eguchi took us on a beautiful, peaceful journey through the work’s mildly troubled waters, finishing with high harmonics and arpeggios played with the wood of the bow.

Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Fantasia was a commission from Meyers that proved to be his final work. Again, it’s a gentle work with an undulating harmonic sense that sounds a little like Brahms by way of Shostakovich. As with the Beethoven sonata, there’s a good sense of what makes each of the two instruments unique, but Rautavaara will then swap, letting the violin sound percussive as the piano enjoys some legato strains.

Ravel’s “Tzigane” began the second half. It’s usually a recital closer because of its unbelievably virtuosic demands, but the energy it generated made this an appropriate placement. Written for a Hungarian violinist, it peppers Gypsy-inspired passagework through its long solo introduction and then in the rollicking combo of busy, dissonant piano and busy, fingerbusting fiddle. Every violinist plays this piece, but Meyers gets it. She gets the style of it, and livens it with finger-slides and crunchy staccato (and what a staccato she has!) as she dances through its fury.

What’s an appropriate contrast? How about a slow hymn! “Magnum Mysterium” was set for chorus in 1994 by Morten Lauridsen, who teaches at USC; when Meyers asked him for a work, he demurred, citing a too-full schedule; then he heard her play and relented, producing an arrangement of the choral work.

It has a feel of antiquity, appropriate to this classic responsorial text, but it eased nicely into the voices of violin and piano, giving Meyers a chance to display her warmest tone accented by a lusher vibrato than I’d noticed before. And it builds, adding double-stops and shimmering octaves as the intensity increased. It dropped back to the single-voice theme for its quiet finish, and, come on, people: can’t you sit quietly after an experience like that? Just for a few seconds, even? The house was nicely filled and folks were mad to applaud, but they clearly felt insecure about when to do so. When in doubt: don’t. Especially after such a quiet, perfect ending.

A video screen was lowered for the final work, Jakub Ciupinski’s “Wreck of the Umbria,” written for Meyers but inspired by the composer’s deep-sea dives to explore this Italian ship that was sunk in the Mediterranean by the British during World War II. Grainy wartime footage alternated with colorful, hi-def images of the hulk and the fish who surround it, while Meyers performed to a recorded soundtrack.

It’s an effective combination, but the video component is so overwhelming that if Meyers hadn’t been there I don’t think I would have missed the violin part. Her part echoed and was echoed by the soundtrack, but there didn’t seem to be much tension between them. Also, the balance was too uneven, causing her softer notes to be obscured. There’s a great idea at the heart of this piece, but it needs more refinement.

Nevertheless, she’s doing her instrument and the world of music a great service by seeking such works and programming them so compellingly – and playing like a master.

Anne Akiko Meyers, violinist; Akira Eguchi, pianist
EMPAC Theater, Troy, April 18, 2017

The Alt, 26 April, 2017

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