On March 13, The Blue Candlelight Music Series concert series presented a legendary violinist, a well-known name but not a frequent concertizer: Ilya Kaler.
He is a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and took three gold medals in the world’s most prestigious international violin competitions: Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow (1986), Sibelius Competition in Helsinki (1985), and the Paganini Competition in Genoa (1981).
He is also active as a teacher in equally prestigious institutions such as the Eastman Conservatory of Music and DePaul University. He was also a Distinguished Professor of Music at the Indiana University School of Music. Further, he has a brilliant résumé as a concertmaster, serving in the positions for the Rochester Philharmonic and as guest concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Aspen Festival Orchestra. As recording artist, he has made important recordings of the concerto, solo and chamber music repertoire.
Few in the audience knew what to expect when he began but it didn’t take long for some impressions to form. For one thing, Kaler is an elegant player with impeccable intonation and a complete technical mastery. Another is that his interpretations, while uniquely his, do not impose an interpretative layer on the music. Everything he does is in the service of the composer and he makes a good case for whatever he plays, agree or not. He also uses his vibrato as a color, changing it from fast to slow and everything in-between: depending on how he feels the note should go.
He opened with Suite in the Old Style by Russian composer Alfred Schnitke (1934-1998). This is a delightful piece that uses classical era dance forms and approximates the musical style as well. Schnitke fills the suite with unexpected harmonic turns and flashes of virtuosity. Originally, this music was written for three different films but it hangs together quite nicely as a suite. Schnitke overuses the compositional device of the sequence throughout, most noticeably in the fuga that closes the piece, but that may have had a purpose in the original film score.
It was in the opening Pastorale that a unique aspect of this playing first became notable: an unusual evenness of the sound of his violin on all four strings. Usually, each string as its own timbre with the G string being the darkest and the E string the most brilliant. While this is still true with Kaler’s violin, it is to a much lesser extent. Frequently, it was hard to tell which string he was on, most noticeably on the two lower strings. This sometimes blunted the effect created by playing a note on one string and then on another when it is repeated; which is commonly done. But the other side of this effect is an amazing evenness that he is able to create.
Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94a. This is one of the landmark sonatas of the 20th century and one of the composer’s most frequently performed chamber works. Part of the reason for this is that it was originally written for flute in 1942 but the composer arranged it for violin a year later at the urgings of violinist David Oistrakh. In some ways it works better for flute because the composer utilized some of the instrument’s effects, such as the repeated notes in the main theme for the first movement, and the different sounds of the flute’s registers. However, if you didn’t know the flute version, you wouldn’t notice the differences. Actually, Kaler’s evenness of sound helped mitigate this difference.
The second half opened with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, a reworking of material from his ballet Pulcinella. His playing in this work was different. He modified his playing to reflect a more classical elegance. He changed his playing again for Shostakovich’s Four Preludes from Op. 34.
These preludes, originally for piano, are a tribute to Bach’s similar work and, like Bach, have a prelude and fugue in all 24 keys. Nineteen of them were transcribed for violin and piano by Dmitri Zyganov, first violinist of the Beethoven String Quartet. Lera Auerbach arranged the remaining five preludes in 2000. Kaler’s Russian soul took over here and he captured every changing mood.
Speaking of the Russian soul, the last piece on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique, Op 26. You can tell right from the title that this is going to be a visit to the composer’s Pity Party. Not that he didn’t have lots of reasons to be mélancolique; he certainly did. But no one captures this middle ground between unhappy and full-out grief like Tchaikovsky. Kaler delivered a sentimental performance, with lots of vibrato.
Throughout the entire performance, BCMS Artistic Director and pianist, Baya Kakouberi, was right with him. She was able to stay on top of the music even when Kaler took some significant liberties. Many of the works on the program are every bit as challenging for the pianist as the violinist, the Prokofiev sonata is a good example. He technique is as secure as Kaler’s and the two made an excellent team.
On May 8, Kakouberi will also be at the piano in a BCMS concert, with her husband, violinist Gary Levinson. If their superb CD recording of all of the Beethoven Sonatas is any indication, this should be a memorable concert.