Is there any instrument in classical music with more mystique than a violin made by Antonio Stradivari? Sherlock Holmes owned and played one. A critically well-received film, The Red Violin, was inspired by a Strad. The recent story of a Milwaukee violinist tazed and robbed of a Stradivarius startled and intrigued music lovers around the world.
Friday evening at The Broad Stage, as Chee-Yun played a Stradivarius, the hall literally shook. Despite the poetry and magic of a lovely, petite violinist making a building quiver with her Strad, the real explanation was rather mundane: a distant earthquake. ]
That gap between the mystical and the prosaic shadowed four days of events that the L.A. Chamber Orchestra billed as Strad Fest L.A. On Friday's concert, five superb violinists – Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint, and Xiang Yu – showcased five Stradivariuses.
There was a circus-like atmosphere, with the Strads trotted out like trained ponies. In two works, movements were broken up between different violinists, the classical music equivalent of a battle royal; yet only an irredeemable cynic would not have enjoyed the outstanding performances and the beautiful, singing violin tones.
How much of this musical magic was due to the performers, and how much to their special instruments? Many listener blind tests between a Stradivarius and a more recently made instrument reveal no audible difference. Violinists assert that a Stradivarius will not impart a wondrous sound to a player that can't produce one; instead, a Strad is simply easier to play.
The program mixed solid compositions with shamelessly flashy showstoppers, with the second half devoted to music with folk or popular influences. Yu played the fourth movement of Franck's Violin Sonata with lyric tone and musical warmth.
Quint dazzlingly played two variations on the main theme from John Corigliano's score to The Red Violin. Telemann's Concerto in D major, TWV 40:202, was a real find: a handsome vehicle for four violins without additional accompaniment. Themes passed from one violin to the next, moving across the stage, energetically performed by Lin, Chee-Yun, Quint, and Batjer.
There was jaw-dropping virtuosity from Lin in Fritz Kreisler's Tambourin Chinois, but the orientalisms are dated in this age of world music fusion. Sarasate's Navarra, charmingly executed by Chee-Yun and Quint, successfully captured an ethnic feel (that of Spain), but seemed little more than a virtuosic character piece.
Lin gave a haunting rendition of Ravel's Piece en Forme de Habanera, a short but profound work drenched in Spanish atmosphere without quoting any actual folk music. Chee-Yun's masterly account of Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso was the piece with accidental temblor accompaniment, another Spanish-infused work.
Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances, composed for piano solo in 1915, are precursors to the plethora of music today adapting folk music to the concert stage. The Transylvanian melodies are authentic, but harmonized in Bartok's unique language. There's nothing virtuosic about the original piano version, but Zoltan Szekely arranged the work for violin and piano with all kinds of violin tricks. All five violinists and Stradivariuses took the stage, each musician playing one dance, with all joining in on the fast and furious last dance. Like much of the concert, this had the risk of devolving into a silly stunt, yet the spirited playing was so wonderful that it overrode any such questions of taste.
Throughout the concert, pianist Jeffrey Kahane provided virtuosic accompaniment to the soloists with an ease and grace that belied the technical difficulties of his part.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Gabriel Kahane. The name is actually Jeffrey Kahane.
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