As it so often is on concert stages all over the world, the violin was the center of attention as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the second of three scheduled events at the Concert Hall of Drew University in Madison on Nov. 14.
The Drew venue is the New Jersey home of the prestigious CMS, where world-class musicians offer some of the same programs they present in New York. This is a wonderful opportunity for Garden State music lovers.
Saturday’s program was entitled The Golden Age of the Violin but should have more accurately been called the Most Recent Golden Age of the Violin. As the excellent program notes explain, the first occurred in the 17th and 18th century, the age of Stradivari, when the modern string instruments developed.
The golden age in focus in the Drew concert was a more recent one, spanning much of the 19th century but reaching its pinnacle with the life of Fritz Kreisler, 1875 to 1962. Considered the greatest violin virtuoso of his time, and arguably of all time (there was, however, Paganini!) Kreisler not only championed extraordinary speed and dexterity but, in the words of CMS co-Artistic Director David Finckel, “he made the instrument sing!”
The program featured three exceptionally gifted young violinists, Benjamin Beilman, Sean Lee and Danbi Um, along with Finckel and Paul Neubauer. Finckel is regarded as one of the finest cellists performing today. Neubauer, a violist, is equally respected and makes one wonder why the viola is not more often featured as the solo instrument.
Music ranged from the Baroque to modern, the second time period represented by works from Eugene Ysaÿe and Kreisler himself. Modern but not modernist, these two pieces, a sonata and a string quartet, made use of the exceptional virtuosity of the musicians performing them.
Ysaÿe’s Sonata in E minor for Violin was played with passion and extraorinary skill by Benjamin Beilman. The second of three movements, Sarabande, includes an unusual and memorable pizzicato section.
The other modern work was Kreisler’s Quartet in A minor, in which Beilman played first violin and Um, second, with Neubauer and Finckel rounding out the quartet. Kreisler, known more as a performer than as a composer, wrote the quartet in New York in 1919. It is a lyrical work drawing heavily on the tradition of late Romanticism, including melodic passages combined with powerful emotional resonance.
That today’s violin is thought by many to replicate the human voice was evident in the work that was the centerpiece of the concert: the heart-wrenchingly beautiful Quartet No. 2 in D major, by Alexander Borodin. Familiar because many of its themes and harmonies were central to the score of the Broadway musical, Kismet,
it is a dream of a quartet, that puts all four instruments into a relationship of interdependence and equality. The first violin (here played by Um, with Lee as second) initiates most of the melodic lines, but the development of each theme travels through the ensemble, astonishing with the beauty of the resulting harmonies.
The program notes (written by Dr. Richard E. Rodda and worth mentioning as a gold mine of fascinating information about the composers and historical context) mention that Borodin was a working chemist and medical researcher. We are so grateful he found time in his busy life to write some music!
Also on the program were the Terzetto in C major for two violins and viola, by Antonin Dvorak, with Beilman and Lee as first and second violins respectively; and Sonata in E minor for two violins, played by Lee and Um.
The Terzetto is classic Dvorak in which, lacking a cello, he uses the viola brilliantly as the deep voice in the group. Warmly emotional, the piece opens in a subdued manner but progresses through an animated Scherzo, ending with a lively Theme and Variations. We could not help but watch the viola as it seemed to tie the higher-pitched instruments together.
The LeClair work, though clearly and undeniably Baroque in style, was played with a modern touch, incorporating vibrato and dynamics that would not have existed in the Baroque period but do characterize that second golden age of the violin, the focus of the concert. (And adding a real touch of mystery to the program, the notes reveal that the composer Jean-Marie LeClair was the victim of an unsolved murder. The notes, however, do point to a suspect, but presumably it’s too late to do anything about it now!)
The next CMS concert at Drew is April 16, 2016.