"Fiddlers Three" was actually the title of a New York Philharmonic concert that was broadcast live on PBS several decades ago. It was a concert in which Isaac Stern was honored as a guest performer in the company of two "superstar" violinists from the next general: Itzak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman. This was back in the days when Zubin Mehta was the music director; so the whole concert was very much a "Kosher Nostra Special" (to invoke a favorite epithet from those days). Nevertheless, to this day I remember it as a reinforcement of my decision to seek out music performances other than at the New York Philharmonic. The whole thing was one of those bland affairs meant to give the big donors the sorts of things they liked, which had more to do with personalities than with music. The most interesting part of the evening was probably when Zuckerman took up a viola to perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 364 sinfornia concertante with Stern. Every time the violin had to "respond" to a passage introduced by the viola, Stern seemed to be showing how Zuckerman could play the music with more interesting phrasing; yet, in the final measures of the third movement, it was clear that Zuckerman was no more aware of this message than he was when the piece began. It does not speak well of a concert when the most salient memory is an instance of Schadenfreude!
The three "fiddlers" at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night were all members of the violin faculty: Wei He, Axel, Strauss, and Ian Swensen (who also played viola). Only one work on the program required a piano accompaniment, which was performed by Timothy Bach. More interesting was that every piece performed required at least two of the violin faculty members; and the final piece brought all three of them together (with Swensen on viola). Unlike the New York affair, this was a concert where the results were anything but bland.
In a way the whole theme of the evening involved the challenges and benefits of bringing together two identical instruments, along with the corollary that two violins tend to be more interesting than pairs of instruments from other families, such as flutes or trumpets. This is probably due, at least in part, to the great diversity of sounds the different violins elicit, to such a degree that even less-trained ears can become aware of those differences. Thus, if I return to that metaphor of social conversation and view the musical performance as a dramatization of that conversation, then one of the challenges of two identical instruments is to overcome the dramatic effect of an actor in dialog with his/her own clone. A conversation is only different when the different perspectives of different personalities come into play, and the extent to which every violin has its own "personality" facilitates addressing this challenge.
Having said all that, I should also point out that each of the compositions on last night's program required a different approach to this challenge. Jean-Marie Leclair's fifth sonata for two solo violins may have been the most challenging, simply because, in its Baroque tradition, the "text" of the two voices were so close to identical, with alternation between call-and-response episodes with periods where the two voices converged into homophony. While it might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the personalities that Swenson and He brought to their performance were the primary source of interest, it would still be fair to say that the personality element kept the music from drifting into the "automatic pilot" mode that is the fate of so much of the Baroque chamber repertoire. Another possible exaggeration would be the claim that Swenson brought a Dionysian personality to the performance, while He's was more Apollonian; but such a claim would still be a good way to approach the personality differences. Swenson was the more fiery, with energy bursting from every phrase, while He approaches those same phrases with a quieter refinement, meeting each of Swenson's celebrations of "yes!" with a calmer "yes, but …." Whether this would have been an acceptable performance practice in the early eighteenth century is less important than how it may the performance of work unknown to just about anyone who does not specialize in the violin not just a pleasure but an exciting one.
In the Opus 71 suite by Moritz Moszkowski, violinists He and Strauss were accompanied by pianist Bach. Here there were greater differences in those "texts" of the two voices; so the performance was more a matter of finding the "personalities stances" consistent with those texts. Moszkowski tends to be associated with salon music, and this particular suite would be consistent with that association. The challenges have more to do with technique than with compositional language, so most of the pleasure came from letting that technique unfold in all of its virtuosity. One would probably not want to devote an entire concert to which pieces, but it was well programmed as a follow-up to the approach to virtuosity that Leclair had taken.
The second half of the concert involved two works that were a bit more "solid" in comparison to Leclair and Moszkowski. Swenson and Strauss played Serge Prokofiev's Opus 56 sonata for two solo violins, and all three soloists played Antonín Dvořák's Opus 74 terzetto. Both Prokofiev and Dvořák were good at exploring instrumental color, and this provided one of the primary ways in which the "texts" of the voices were endowed with personality. This was particularly apparent in which way in which Dvořák employed pizzicato coloring in his scherzo movement, bringing up the "intensity of the light," so to speak, on an atmosphere of moody nostalgia. I was reminded of how Antony Tudor had choreographed this music for his extended ballet, The Leaves are Fading, which drew heavily upon Dvořák's Cypresses for nostalgic effect but also drew upon this particular scherzo. Unfortunately, Ballet Theatre felt obliged to recast all this chamber music for a string orchestra in the pit, thus robbing it of the transparency that was its greatest asset. These "fiddlers three" seemed to understand and appreciate the extent to which transparency is what made the entire Dvořák terzetto "work;" and I always welcome an opportunity to hear that scherzo get the performance it deserves.