Fort Worth — The Mimir Chamber Music Festival put its best foot forward for the opening concert on July 3, 2018. This remarkable chamber music extravaganza takes place in the sweltering month of July in Fort Worth at PepsiCo Hall on the campus of Texas Christian University. However, the music was even hotter than the outside temperature. Violinist Leila Josefowicz, internationally recognized violinist superstar, set the stage aflame with a program of intense modernist music, all written in the 20th century.
The program was hardly a surprise. Josefowicz is famous for her dedication to the music of our time and a number of composers have written music for her, including a couple of major violin concerti.
Her choices for this recital spanned the entire 1900s. In fact, her first selection represented the beginning of that musically turbulent century.
She opened with the romantic language prevalent at the turn of the century with Waltz Triste, Op. 44 by Jean Sibelius, which was written in 1903. Friedrich Hermann arranged Sibelius’ well-known orchestral piece for violin and piano in 1907. (He also arranged it for cello and viola with piano). This beautiful and melancholy piece works equally well in all of the myriad of arrangements for diverse instruments, as does this one for violin.
Josefowicz played the tune with a rich sound on the G-string and a fairly wide vibrato. Pianist John Novacek, her long time collaborator, was a little too loud in places. However, his balance on the rest of the program was excellent.
From there, her selections moved right into the center of the modernist movement that shredded the gentle tonality of the Sibelius as composers searched for new modes of expression.
Prokofiev’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 80, is one of his ferocious, dark and angular pieces. The reason for this is that it was begun in 1938 when Joseph Stalin’s “Great Terror” was ending. Many of the leading artists of the day were gratuitously murdered. As the war intervened, he sat this composition aside and finished it after the war ended. The brooding and tragic mood left by all of the horror he had experienced was poured into this sonata.
Josefowicz and Novacek delivered this bleak and angry sonata with incredible virtuosity and ferocity, even though they overlaid a lyric quality. Josefowitz broke at least a dozen hairs on her bow with the aggressiveness of her relentless attacks. The third movement gave us a break from the dissonant savagery of the other four, but it mournful longing did not relieve the overall blackness although it gave is a reprise from the onslaught. We were exhausted when the intermission gave us a chance to catch our breath.
We needed the break because the second half opened with a piece very much like the Prokofiev, the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Bernd Alois Zimmermann. The composer led a troubled life, made worse by deteriorating health that ended in suicide at the relatively young age of 53. He refused to be a member of any school of composition but forged his own style out of bits and pieces of what was going on compositionally in the 1950’s.
Josefowicz and Novacek played this sonata with all of the energy and aggressiveness they brought to the Prokofiev. Many more bow hairs were broken in the effort. However, like the Prokofiev, they brought much more relaxed mood to the central movement. It is filled with trills and lots of arpeggio passages both up and down. Much of it gave Josefowicz some extended solo passages with only an occasional interjection by the Novacek. The mood ended as the movement slowly vanished and the last movement jumped back in with all of the coarseness of the first one. Some jazz elements appeared, as well as a canted rumba, and the performers made the most of the rhythms.
Many commentators say that the complex dissonances of the modernist movement were finally banished by minimalism. Composers could explore the Zen of a simple triad by pushing it through the sieve of ever-changing patterns. John Adams is one of the masters of minimal and his Road Movies from 1995 brought the program right up to the start of the 21st century.
As the title implies, Road Movies feels very much like a road trip in a car with its sometimes endlessly repetitive miles. Josefowicz and Novacek gave the best performance of the evening with this piece and the enjoyment they radiated playing Adam’s piece was obvious from both the results and their body language.
They brought out the constant use of cross rhythms to create ever-denser sonorities as accents blur the bar lines. The first and last movements take us on a long car trip with a perpetual motion format. The second movement required Josefowicz to tune the G-string down a step to F. The composer does this to add the “blues” 7th to the overall G-major key. It was obvious that the two performers are well acquainted with the blues and brought an educated understanding to Adams’ adoption of that musical language into his minimalist style.
The ecstatic audience demanded an encore and Josefowicz and Novacek presented something unusual. It was an arrangement of the song “Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin for the end of his movie Modern Times. This was in an arrangement by the jazz pianist/composer Claus Ogermann. The words are bittersweet as they suggest a smile as antidote for melancholy.
The violin and piano line sound like they are two different pieces that just happen to match exactly. Josefowicz spun the melody in a lovely, constant and poignant tone high on the E string. Novacek played a despondent jazz meditation with complex and shifting, but harmonious, chord structures.
The effect was spellbinding and brought the program to a subtle and contemplative end after so much ruckus.
Mimir Artists Concerts are: July 3, July 5, July 7 and July 8. All concerts are held at TCU's PepsiCo Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m., except for the July 8 performance, which will be 2:00 p.m. at the Kimbell’s Renzo Piano Pavilion. Ticket information will be available shortly.
All concerts at PepsiCo Recital Hall unless otherwise noted
7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 7
PepsiCo Recital Hall, TCU
2 p.m. Sunday, July 8
Renzo Piano Pavilion At The Kimbell Art Museum