Dallas — The Blue Candlelight Music Series concert came off without a hitch on Sunday, May 25. That was a relief to the organizer because that isn’t what happened when it was originally scheduled. That was the week of the Great December Ice Storm that paralyzed the city (or, one of them). Fortunately, the artists were available this spring and generously agreed to return to play the concert. Perhaps this was a fortunate turn of events; the program was more appropriate for springtime anyway.
Violinist Gary Levinson was joined by flutist Eugenia Zukerman and pianist Anton Nel was at the keyboard. Levinson is well known to Dallas audiences and is the Senior Associate Concertmaster in the Dallas Symphony. In addition to her work as a flutist, Zukerman was the Artistic Director of the Vail Valley Music Festival from 1998 to 2010. Nel, who is on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, is also well known locally for his many appearances, including this one with the Dallas Symphony.
Since there is little music for flute and violin, the program leaned heavily on music for two flutes. The violin and flute easily interchange since they both have a similar range. In fact, there is one Prokofiev flute sonata that gets more play as his Violin Sonata No. 2.
The problem with violin taking one of the flute parts is more one of balance than voicing. The violin, especially Levinson’s assertive Stradivarius, has a lot more projection throughout its range than the flute, which can only compete in the upper range. Physics doesn’t help. There is a big difference between the violin’s highly focused vibrating steel string and the less focused vibrating air column of the flute. Levinson made a great effort to blend all evening and he mostly succeeded. Only when they got to the tangos by Astor Piazzolla and the Andante and Rondo by Albert Franz Doppler did the gypsy in every violinist’s soul get the better of him.
Nel was a wonder all evening. Unfortunately, he didn’t have nearly enough to do. A solo piece would have been a welcome addition to the program. In spite of that, Nel impressed with his subtle and intelligent collaborative playing. He always brought out what was important for us to hear, even if it was just a few notes, and then he would fade unobtrusively back into the overall texture.
The opening work, the Trio Sonata in B flat major, H. 578, by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is about as far as you can get from Piazzolla. This is the Bach that helped to usher in the Classical period and his music, what he called empfindsamer Sti (in a sensitive style), was revolutionary at the time. Further, it is full of craft and brimming with melodic materials. You can hear his father’s influence in all of the counterpoint that goes on, but dad never wrote such lovely lilting melodies. The three musicians gave this work a delightful performance that made you want to explore more of the composer’s music. Too bad he didn’t try his hand at an opera.
Both the pair of dances by Louis Moyse and a piece by Albert Franz Doppler were unknown to most of us. Both were surprises. Doppler, who was a student of Franz Liszt, reveled in this piece in the Hungarian influence that so intrigued both Liszt and Brahms.
Moyse, who lived until 1984, put the musicians through their paces. Fast tempi presented a challenge. The music was always moving, but rarely were the two instrumentalists together. One would have a slow line and the other moving very quickly. Zukerman’s judicious use of vibrato, sometimes none at all, added another layer of contrast between the two. Levinson’s use of harmonics said “violin” to all of us so no one remembered that his part was originally for flute.
Bartók spent his career gathering Romanian folk materials and frequently used them in his compositions. His Six Romanian Folk Dances completely relies on this research. These dances started out as piano pieces, but have been arranged for almost everything ever since. Levinson’s first entrance was huge, amazingly rich and loud without being overplayed. Zukerman cleverly didn’t even try to compete, but took a completely opposite approach, setting a very different mood. This happened again in the fourth dance. Levinson’s violin completely filled the performance space. Zukerman’s shy but assertive entrance was the perfect response to Levinson’s bravura. Zukerman took charge completely in the last dance.
The Piazzolla tangos gave the three the opportunity to let their classical hair down and they took full advantage of it. Nel finally got a solo passage and used it, not to show off, but to perfectly set up the flute’s entrance. His crisp rhythm in the begging of the last tango was anther example of setting the mood in preparation for the solo entrance. Levinson used nearly all of the violin’s special effects: shifts on repeated notes, bow position, bow pressure, vibrato coloration and harmonics.
The Three Duets for Violin, Flute and Piano Op. 57d were quite a surprise. First, Op. 57 is the Piano Quintet and 57d is not in the list of his compositions. There is a work without an opus number titled Three Duets for Two Violins and Piano, which dates from 1955. Presumably, this is what we heard. Secondly, this music didn’t sound much like Shostakovich. Actually, it didn’t sound like him at all (maybe like his circus music). Levinson warned us not to expect Russian angst but that didn’t prepare us for these sassy, almost pop-sounding, pieces.
The first duet still sounded Russian, with its minor key, but the beautiful melody, accompanied by simple arpeggios could have been by Poulenc (or Sondheim). The second, an oompah-pah folk dance, utilized lots of thirds or sixths. The third was patterned after Strauss (Jr.) waltzes, complete with an introduction (when you formally asked the lady to dance), a cadenza (for some eye-gazing), and a short stretto return-to-your-seat ending (and maybe a stolen kiss on the hand).
Al three musicians enjoyed themselves playing this unexpectedly light-hearted Shostakovich and many a toe tapped in the audience. It probably would have made a better program ender than the impressive, and showier, Doppler.