Dallas — The Dallas Symphony’s Beethoven festival has been a grab bag musical experience, with a combination of chamber music and full symphonic concerts. It is an interesting concept in that the listener can experience both the large scale and small scale works in close proximity of each other. Beethoven often experimented in his chamber music, so musical devices often turn up in these works first.
The chamber concerts, played in the Dallas City Performance Hall, were based around and anchored by his violin sonatas. Other music, to add some variety, was also programmed that had some relationship to Beethoven. Some, like Haydn, were a forerunner and others, like Schubert, benefitted from Beethoven’s bold steps forward from Classicism to the nascent Romantic Movement. The first of these was reviewed here.
The glaring problem in all of these concerts is the capricious nature of the acoustics in the newish hall. The solo violinist was often muffled, with the sound not projecting with the same presence as the piano. It appeared to have something to do with where the violinist stood, and the sound was better in the balcony. Though we were able to hear three terrific, but very different, violinists, the verdict was the same, and the violinists themselves commented on it when they were in the audience for the other players.
One solution might be a small mini-shell that would be set up downstage and be large enough to encompass the piano and one or two solo instruments—maybe even a string quartet. This would have the added advantage of framing the smaller ensemble better on the large stage. The encompassing sides and the angled top of such structures helps to collect and focus the sound, to better send it out into the audience.
One of the violinists was Alexander Kerr, our new(ish) co-concertmaster and Professor of Music at the highly distinguished Indiana University. He is a thoughtful player and delves deeply into Beethoven’s music. There is not a note that goes unexamined, and he builds the piece from that note, starting on the atomic level, so to speak.
From the notes, he builds the phrases. From the phrases, he builds the structure. From that, he builds the movements and then combines them to make the finished performance of the sonata. He then plays his finished conception with an impeccable technique, beautiful sound, perfect intonation and a sense of style that is flexible. You can see his musical ideas in his facial expressions and body language, as well as hear them.
Our other new co-concertmaster, Nathan Olsen, is a very different sort of player. He produces a huge sound. In fact, his performance projected the best in the hall, and since it was the first we heard, it only made the others sound more muffled. Part of this is the nature of his violin, which is reportedly quite an outspoken instrument. But most of it is his due to his bold playing style and aggressive bow arm.
His interpretations are based as much on instinct as musical study, and there is something exciting about the performances of such intuitive musicians. Details can change, depending on how things are going at the moment. Technically, he is the highly polished product of excellent teachers and the innovative Cleveland Institute of Music's Concertmaster Academy run by William Preucil, concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the best in the country. That academy also includes Paul Kantor, the keeper of legendary violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay’s legacy. Olsen’s verve and spirit prevented him from becoming a carefully constructed artifact of perfect violinism.
By the way, the two play on Dallas Symphony-owned violins, both are beyond price, made by two of the greatest luthiers in history. Kerr performs on the "Falmouth" Stradivarius violin made in 1692, a gift from Dallas Symphony Board Governor Gert-Jan Kramer. Olson plays on a Giuseppe Guarnerius, dated from 1715, which was also a gift from Kramer.
An aside: Although I no longer play violin and was never of concert quality, my choice would be the Guarnerius. The Strads can be cantankerous instruments, like one-owner dogs that gaze in adoration at their human companion, but snarl at everyone else. But the Guarnerius violins respond with openness to anyone who treats them with respect. Kerr and the Strad have obviously come to some agreement, because the results speak for themselves. Olsen’s Guarnerius must have thought “Hot Dang” when he first picked it up.
Speaking of DeLay, her student, violinist Chee-Yun, presented one of these concerts on May 3. She is on the faculty of Southern Methodist University and is one of the brightest lights among the new generation of concert artists. Her performance of Beethoven’s sonatas Nos. 2 and 6 was marked by a combination of elegance and discipline. You got the feeling that this is her current interpretation and, while that may change and mature in the future, this is the way that all performances will go until that happens. There was little of Olsen’s daring-do or Kerr’s sheer joy of playing. What comes across is her love of the music combined with her personal involvement and respect for the integrity of the piece.
Chee-Yun’s sound was also slightly withheld by the hall’s acoustics. It is certainly not the fault of technique, which is rock solid with fine control over the bow. Nor is it her instrument. She plays the Stradivarius "Ex-Strauss" (1708), which appears to suit her and is on loan from the Samsung Corporation.
Another aside: If you happen to have 5 million extra dollars tucked away, you could hardly do better with it that to buy a rare violin and donate it to an orchestra or soloist. You have an irreplaceable appreciating asset, the PR of making the donation, and you don’t have to take care of it or insure it. You also get the tax credit, which can be considerable, on top of that. Sweet.
The pianist for some of the concerts was the magnificent Alessio Bax, who is also affiliated with SMU. Mostly, he appeared as a collaborative pianist for all the sonatas, a role in which he excels. But on May 3, he played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, No. 1 in A major, Op. 110. This sonata is almost completely overshadowed by its companion, the so-called “Hammerklavier,” but in many ways, it is just as innovative.
Bax gave it a sensitive and insightful performance. He was quite sparing on his use of the sustaining pedal but really soaked it when he brought it into play. Likewise, his loud playing was all in Beethovian scale, even though he rose off the bench to use his full body weight at one point. The majestic fugal section in the last movement was played with great clarity and the entrance of the subject in octaves in the bottom of the instrument was an awe-inspiring sound. It was fascinating to hear him boldly step forward in this solo appearance and then return to the collaborator a moment later.
The entire series was an interesting excursion into Beethoven’s music, but it is hardly original. Beethoven festivals abound and take in a wider variety of his music, but this one was wisely chosen. Those who were able to attend all of the events should have come away with a new appreciation of the scope of Beethoven’s almost unfathomable genius. Even those who could only attend some of them, this writer included, were greatly enriched.
Let’s hope that the next time a close look is taken of the work of a composer, that it is someone more recent—maybe even still alive and able to attend.