In common regard, the violin concertos — even the last three, which are the most often played — are a violinist‘s throwaway pieces, the easy music at the start of the program before getting down to serious stuff. Last week, Hilary Hahn played No. 4, with Jeffrey Kahane and his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, at Royce Hall, as a teaser before Edgar Meyer’s louder, longer new concerto. Two nights later, Vladimir Spivakov played and conducted No. 5 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with his Moscow Virtuosi, as curtain raiser for a mostly-Mozart program. In both cases I took home happier memories of these concertos than of anything else on either program. (They also made it harder to preserve any kind memories at all of Max Bruch‘s G-minor Concerto, despite Martin Chalifour’s honorable performance with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Philharmonic, which came between the other two programs and merely illustrated the sad state that violin concertos were to sink to in the century after Mozart.)
Common regard, however, risks our missing some miraculous happenings in these two concertos, which last week‘s performances drove home. The tricks right at the start of both works are astounding. No. 4 begins, like thousands of other works of its time, with a tune that’s nothing more than a fanfare, a D-major arpeggio up and down the scale that immediately — like far fewer works of its time — turns reflective, almost winsome. No. 5 also starts with an arpeggio, A-major this time, that later on turns out to be the accompaniment for the striding, grandiose real theme. Both concertos begin their slow movements with a Mozartian gambit that remained an earmark in later works as well: a theme that begins out in thin air as an unsupported single line, with the harmony kicking in only at the end of the phrase. (Listen to the opening of the K. 453 piano concerto for a wonderful late example.) The finale of No. 5 is famous, with its glorious intrusion of a ”Turkish“ episode that has the orchestral string players tapping out the rhythm with the wood of the bow; the last movement of No. 4 is no less remarkable, with its main theme broken into a real argument among players that never quite gets resolved. Both concertos end enchantingly: not with the expected big bang but with a final smile and a tiptoe offstage. So much for your ”throwaway“ Mozart.
Spivakov‘s program drew a large Russian-speaking crowd, most of it a ringer for your Aunt Minnie from Minsk and all of it apparently upset by the one contemporary work, the violin concerto (plus harpsichord) that Alfred Schnittke had fashioned out of one of his sonatas: strange, unsettling music with fascinating wide swings between mellow C-major triads and grinding dissonances. There was also more worthwhile early Mozart, but the wonderful A-major Symphony (No. 29, K. 201) was ruined by the conductor’s disinclination to honor the repeats or to mute the strings, as specified, in the slow movement. Isn‘t it late in the day to ignore such obvious guideposts in performing this kind of music?
Sooner or later someone will create for Hilary Hahn the concerto she deserves as the remarkably intelligent, dedicated violinist she has already, at 20, become. Edgar Meyer’s concerto, which Hahn has recorded and which — since she played it from memory — she has obviously been persuaded by whatever powers that be to take into her repertory, is not that work. Meyer is an admirable musical entertainer; he proved as much here the week before, with his pals Mark O‘Connor and Yo-Yo Ma, in another time-around in a sold-out Royce Hall of his country-fiddlin’ wingding. (He has also proved even more honorable credentials, as has O‘Connor, in sit-ins with the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center.)
But the Appalachian stuff (Waltz the first time and, now, Journey) is already hybrid, Meyer’s proof of his ability to absorb the figurations and the manic pizzazz of the country-fiddling style (itself a hybrid into which old-timey Brit and Irish jig-time is stirred along with an occasional Latin dip). The technique is familiar, but the revered Aaron Copland of Rodeo and Appalachian Spring puts it to shame; the wrong notes of vintage fiddling clash with the wrong notes that Meyer throws in to establish his originality. By all odds, it‘s Yo-Yo, perhaps the greatest string player among us today, who sells the tickets, and we can’t deny him that. You get the feeling that he could be playing Appalachian hoedowns with one hand and Bach suites with the other.
Meyer‘s Violin Concerto, as did his Double Concerto (for cello and bass) last year, aims higher and plummets further. Its tunesmithing is of the almost-French-wistful-modal stamp; names like Gerald Finzi come to mind, hardly a role model. It goes down easily; alas, it stays down. On the new Sony disc it is paired with the Barber Concerto, which has never sounded stronger.
Give Meyer credit, at least; he knows how to write for the violin, and how to make violinists happy. And Wonder knows how to make bread.