Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Naked Violin

Having written about two members of the wind section of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (Rufus Olivier and Laura Griffiths) being featured in the first Midsummer Mozart Festival concert, I feel a need to give similar attention of Kay Stern, Concertmaster of the Opera Orchestra. This afternoon Ms. Stern gave the "Musical Lunch Break" concert at Saint Patrick's Church, accompanied by pianist Joan Nagano. The program consisted entirely of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata (Opus 47, Number 9, in A major for the more musicologically inclined). Ms. Stern introduced the performance with the observation that Kreutzer was best known for his exercises for violinists and found the Beethoven sonata too hard to play. She then launched into a delightful demonstration of how much the skill of violinists has changed for the better over time.

I have had many influences in my life that stress the importance of first impressions, whether it is the very first sentence of a text (literary or otherwise), the opening gesture of a musical composition (of any genre), or the first gesture of a soloist in an accompanied work. By the time we are in the age of the classical concerto, the last two are seldom the same; but the sonata tradition usually has both soloist and accompanist participating in the opening gesture, as was the case in most baroque sonatas. The unaccompanied soloist, however, was another matter. That is exactly how the "Kreutzer" begins, with a soloist honoring the semantics of that label by being truly alone. (Beethoven would invoke the same technique, with equally dramatic effect, at the beginning of his fourth piano concerto.) The result is a sonata that demands not only technical skill and a confident sense of performance rhetoric but a full measure of intestinal fortitude. The listener is about to embark on a voyage of about forty minutes, the heart of which reveals Beethoven in one of his best elements, weaving elaborate variations around a relatively simple theme; and the first step in that voyage is the critical one. I am therefore happy to report that Ms. Stern had it all: solid technique, persuasive rhetoric, and, most importantly, opening with a stance of self-conviction that qualified her as our guide for the entire voyage.

This is not to say that the opening gesture is all that mattered in this performance. This sonata is a syntactic wonder, as Beethoven explores not only new ways of approaching what is basically a call-and-response relationship between soloist and accompanist but also the weaving together of two lines of counterpoint, invoking more of a sense of a duet for sopranos than an instrumental sonata. There are also the dynamic levels that shift abruptly, never keeping the metaphor of the ground beneath your feet particularly steady as you are guided forward. This sonata may be the closest one comes to a drama without the benefits of either text or the imagined plot line of a tone poem (which may make it one of Schoenberg's inspirations when he was exploring similar dramatic qualities in his first string quartet). Both Ms. Stern and Ms. Nagano seemed to have the right intuitions for how to bring dramatic "voices" to their instruments that did justice to such a point of view.

If we are inclined to talk about what we have heard at the end of a concert (as I hope most of us are), the conversation inevitably comes to the what-did-you-think or how-did-you-like-it question. If the music in question is totally new (which is often in the case of my own tastes), I have come to the realization that the best thing I can say in response is, "I don't know, but I would really like to hear it again." We do not have to say this about works we think we know; but, for such works, the best performances are the ones that remind us that we do not know as much as we thought. Today's "Kreutzer" performance left me hungry to hear it performed again; and I think that may be the highest praise when one is talking about such a familiar composition.

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