Richardson — On Dec. 5, the Chamber Music International concert promised us virtuoso violinists “frolicking with fantasies on Carmen, Don Giovanni, La bohème, rags of Joplin and jazz of Gershwin!" And they delivered.
How cool is that!
We certainly got virtuoso fiddlers. There were four distinguished violinists on the program—and many more in the overflow audience.
David Chan is the concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Stephanie Jeong is the Associate Concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony. Cho-Liang Lin is well known not only as a fine violinist, but as a teacher as well (Jeong is/was one of this students). Alexander Kerr needs no introduction to local audiences. The former concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, arguably one of the top orchestras in the world, is now co-concertmaster here with the Dallas Symphony.
The four were joined by double bassist Timothy Pitts, former principal bass in the Houston Symphony and now on the faculty of Rice University. He didn’t have much to do—mostly oompahs—but did a fine job with what he was given.
There was only one original work on the program, a sonata for two violins by Sergei Prokofiev. This is a wondrous piece, showing what a skilled composer can do with a limited palette. In the hands of Kerr and Lin, it was enhanced even further. Clean, sensitive, and precise; the performance was definitive.
The reminder of the program was mostly campy potpourri fantasies based on familiar operas, by violinist Julian Milone, much in the manner of the overblown and mindboggling virtuosity from similar pieces for piano by Franz Liszt.
Milone certainly knows his way around the violin; he is member of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and he gave all four violinists significant challenges.
While these fantasies are just as showy and transcendentally difficult as those by Liszt, Moline’s don’t take themselves as seriously and treat the music with much more respect. (Liszt distorts the character of the operatic material and only uses it as another excuse to run up and down the keyboard with thundering octaves.) Here, the dueling violins take the music as a starting point and fly into stratospheric variations. The familiar arias are stated in a recognizable form and are only surrounded by flash- filled folderol.
The most successful of the bunch was the fantasy on Puccini’s opera, La Bohéme. Milone uses the music in the order that it appears in the score and, if you are familiar with the opera, you can follow the tragic story of the star-crossed lovers from the beginning to the end. Like the operas themselves, the fantasy is a constant stream of gorgeous music with one soaring tune after another.
Moment of Geek: This also underlines one of the primary criticisms of Puccini’s operas.
Those who love Puccini state this cornucopia of melody as the main reason for their devotion, while critics of his style point to this as its fatal flaw.
Not every statement is worthy of the same gorgeous melody, they argue. The ear tires on such a rich diet. Ordinary conversation should be just that—ordinary—so that the moments that require stunningly beautiful music stand out and are all the more effective. “My candle blew out” should not be treated in the same manner as the declaration of eternal love blooming at first sight.
(I do not subscribe to this opinion, by the way. However, there are times you have to smile at the riches Puccini bestows on the mundane.)
The other fantasies used the operatic materials, but not necessarily in story order. Carmen is the subject of a well-known fantasy for violin by Pablo de Sarasate, the Liszt of the violin, so we are used to hearing Bizet’s music out of context and in violinist’s. (For some odd reason, a tune from Bizet’s incidental for Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlésienne is interpolated.)
One of Moline’s missteps in the Carmen piece is his treatment of the music from act two at Lillas Pastia's tavern. In the opera, the wild dance starts slowly and builds until it bursts into a frenzy. Moline starts at frantic and progresses to neurotic. Other than that, Bizet might have been pleased by Milone’s ministrations.
The music from Mozart’s darkest opera, Don Giovanni, received more reverential treatment—from the overture to the finale. Leporello’s catalog aria, listing all of the international beauties seduced by the Don, was full of teasing and life, brimming with exuberance. Giovanni’s serenade “Deh vieni alla finestra” used three of the violinists playing pizzicato to imitate the mandolin that Mozart requests. The violinists took turns with the melody, and afterwards, retreated to plucking.
The program contained some lighter fare, also arranged by Moline. Played as a rondo and refrain, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was way too seriously treated by the four soloists. There was nothing of Sportin’ Life’s biting sarcasm and heretical pointing out of certain incredible, at least highly unlikely, biblical stories.
Three rags by Scott Joplin were all gems. His music was rescued from the dustbin of history in the early 1970s by Joshua Rifkin’s recording of the rags. The use of this music in the Academy Award-winning 1973 movie The Sting sealed Jopin’s fame forever.
His amazing music has been arranged for everything from full orchestra to a tuba quartet. It has not only survived, but impresses over again and over again every time it is played.
Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás, one of the best known and beloved virtuoso showpieces for violin, ended the program. It has survived many an arrangement, is a stable of every Roma band, and continues to shine in Molino’s hand. The four violinists have surely all played the violin edition, but took great pleasure in playing Moline’s complex version.