Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Performances presented the first of the three programs in its Young Masters Series. The “young master” in question was 26-year-old American violinist Benjamin Beilman, making his San Francisco recital debut accompanied by South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, also making his San Francisco recital debut. The preview piece I wrote about his concert described the program Beilman prepared as “ambitious.” Having now experienced that program, I wonder if that was a bit of an understatement.
Beilman performed only four pieces, two on either side of the intermission. However, the first three surveyed an impressively diverse assortment of modernist stances, all of which were composed less than one hundred years ago. The most recent of these was Kaija Saariaho’s “Tocar,” which she composed in 2010. The most challenging, at least for the composer, was Maurice Ravel’s G major sonata, which he worked on between 1923 and 1927. The earliest of the three pieces was Béla Bartók’s second violin sonata, composed in 1922. None of these pieces get much exposure on the concert stage; and, while I have come to know all of them through recordings, this was probably my first account of all of them in performance.
“Tocar” is a Spanish verb, which may seem a bit out of the ordinary for a Finnish composer. However, while the primary meaning of the word is “to touch,” it is also the verb “to play” when applied to a musical instrument. What appealed to Saariaho was this underlying connotation that making music was a matter of physical contact.
Those who have followed Saariaho’s work know that she often attaches more significance to sonority than to more traditional formal elements, such as harmony or counterpoint. “Tocar” is very much a study in how different forms of contact elicit different sonorities from the violin. Those differences are often subtle; but, because Beilman executed all of them with confident clarity, the attentive listener had no trouble apprehending Saariaho’s logic. The piece is only about seven minutes in duration, but Beilman clearly enjoyed it as an exploratory journey. Through his delivery, that joy could easily be shared by those willing to listen.
This deliberate act of coaxing listener attention was just as evident in his approach to Ravel as it was in “Tocar.” The G major sonata was clearly a major challenge for Ravel, a challenge that had much to do with the wide acoustic differences between the percussive sounds of the piano with their “preordained” decay envelopes and the capacity of the violin to sustain its sounds. After years of struggle, what emerged amounted to a study in which incongruity is addressed through separation.
Many are likely to find the opening Allegretto movement perplexing. While its motifs are easily recognizable, they never congeal into anything that one might call a recognizable theme. Furthermore, there is very much a sense that Ravel has dispensed with any rhetoric of “exchange” that one tends to expect from chamber music. It is as if the music is some large public park in which violinist and pianist are ambling around on different paths. Most of the features of that park come to the attention of each of them, but never at the same time. It is almost as if their two parts had been written independently and then superposed.
Both Beilman and Yekwon seemed quite comfortable with this rhetoric of separation. Most impressive was how both of them took a particularly subdued approach to execution, thus capturing the self-absorption of those two wanderers in the park. They were also aware that there was only one critical climax in this movement (when the two wanderers catch sight of each other?); and the way in which the intensity of that climax rose above both what preceded and what followed was thoroughly captivating.
This sonata is often best known because Ravel attached the word “Blues” to the Moderato tempo marking of the second movement. It is unlikely that Ravel had any exposure to the “roots” version of blues; but the dates are such that he was probably aware of George Gershwin’s two best-known works for piano and orchestra, “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924) and the 1925 concerto. There is some sense of a solo wailing against accompaniment, but the accompaniment often comes from the strummed strings of the violin. (There may be a connection here to early jazz bands, whose rhythm sections often included a banjo.) Melodically, the movement again has more to do with recurring motifs than with passages that might be taken as themes.
This highly evocative (if not necessarily bluesy) movement is then capped off by the concluding Perpetuum mobile movement. This is an almost frightening wild outburst, suggesting that both players could no longer confine all the energy suppressed during the first two movements. Both Beilman and Yekwon rose to the occasion with infectiously captivating energy. This was such a delightfully convincing account that one had to wonder why this sonata is not performed in recital more often.
Similarly, the Bartók sonata deserves more attention than it seems to be getting these days. There is an almost improvisatory feel, particularly during the unfolding of the opening Molto moderato movement (the first of two). The following Allegretto is then an almost unrestrained eruption of energy with suggestions of themes that seem to recur persistently, if not regularly. Beilman’s calm demeanor through both the improvisations and the bursts of energy was particularly noteworthy. He was clearly focused on bringing out Bartók’s voice with as much clarity as he could muster, while his own behavior reflected a willingness to serve as a messenger, rather than to co-opt the message.
The “secure ground” of Beilman’s program came with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 108 sonata in D minor. This is the only one of Brahms’ three violin sonatas in four movements. From a formal point of view, the music is on much more familiar (or at least traditional) ground. Nevertheless, in the context of a program that began with the Ravel sonata, there was definitely a sense of an exploratory rhetoric. This hypothesis can be warranted by teasing out details among all the marks on the score pages, but the case could be made just as strongly by that calm demeanor that Beilman has cultivated so well. The result was familiar Brahms enjoying the benefits of strikingly new lighting.
After all of that exploration, there was something refreshing about Beilman concluding the evening with a “fun” encore. This was Fritz Kreisler’s Opus 3 “Tambourin Chinois.” Since this was composed in 1910, it occupied that part of the timeline between Brahms and the three modernists on the program. However, this music was unabashedly composed for crowd-pleasing entertainment; and both Beilman and Yekwon definitely knew how to enjoy themselves with it.