Last night violinist Leila Josefowicz and her accompanist, pianist John Novacek, returned to Herbst Theatre to give their fourth recital for San Francisco Performances. The four works on the program they prepared were all composed during the twentieth century, but the arrangement of those pieces provided a dark reflection on the century as a whole. The “core” of the program consisted of two full-length sonatas, one on either side of the intermission. These were then situated between pieces written in the first and last decades of the twentieth century. The entire program was structured in chronological order.
Both sonatas were composed roughly within five years of the conclusion of World War II (WWII). The earlier of these was Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 80, a four-movement sonata in F minor. It is hard to estimate the trauma that Russians endured as a result of the Nazi invasion and the long, drawn-out efforts to repel them. However, Prokofiev was one of many artists that Soviet authorities evacuated to a safer area; so his personal experience of the war was not as intense as that of, for example, Dmitri Shostakovich. Nevertheless, the initial work on the sonata took place in an equally traumatic time, in the midst of the “Great Purge” under which Joseph Stalin sought to eliminate large numbers of “enemies of the working class” through imprisonment, exile, or execution.
Stalin’s shadow was so dark that it is no surprise that Prokofiev could not complete his sonata under those conditions. He returned to it only after the war was over. Once it was completed, he dedicated it to David Oistrakh, who gave the premiere performance in Moscow on October 23, 1946. The Wikipedia page for this sonata cites an anecdote about how Prokofiev tried to convince Oistrakh’s accompanist, Lev Oborin, to play more aggressively. Prokofiev supposedly said, “It should sound in such a way that people should jump in their seat, and people will say ‘Is he out of his mind?’”
These days were are used to pianists taking an aggressive approach to Prokofiev. Indeed, we expect it of them. The music still has shock value, but the shock tends to require some modicum of willing suspension of disbelief. Last night both Josefowicz and Novacek knew exactly how to fill the Herbst space with clouds of darkness. This was music that succeeded through just the right combination of a scrupulous command of all of the composer’s demands reinforced by a rhetoric of bleak and despairing connotations. That prevailing aesthetic may explain why most violinists tend to pass over Opus 80 in favor of the more affable Opus 94 sonata in D minor. Nevertheless, Josefowicz and Novacek made a convincing case that Opus 80 deserves serious listening as much as Opus 94 does.
The intermission was followed by Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s only violin sonata. The piece was composed in 1950 when Europe was just beginning to recover from the extensive damage wrought by WWII. However, it was also a time of bold experimentation in both creating and performing music. The death of Anton Webern led to increasing interest in his efforts to apply the serial techniques of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, to more than just pitch classes.
In the midst of all of that experimentation, Zimmermann managed to find a path to pursue that both accepted and departed from past historical baggage. He certainly appreciated Schoenberg’s ambition that dissonance should be “emancipated.” However, he did not always embrace the techniques that Schoenberg had developed to provide a calculated discipline for avoiding a tonal center. Zimmermann was not afraid to serve up triads (sometimes heavily embellished); but he created them in the interest of establishing a tonal center that is always in motion (as opposed to the fixed center of a circle). What results amounts to a flow through which tonality is constantly wandering from one center to another, a bit like the protagonist in Schoenberg’s spooky one-act opera “Erwartung” (expectation).
Later in life Zimmermann would be consumed by a depression that would lead to his suicide in 1970. However, in 1950 he was in full command of his faculties; and it is the confidence with which he unfolds the materials of this sonata that establishes his ever-shifting tonal centers as a powerful rhetorical device rather than yet another gimmick to pick up in the wake of Webern’s pioneering efforts. Indeed, listening to Josefowicz and Novacek last night, one could even detect shadows of jazzy expression in Zimmermann’s rhetoric. As was the case with the Prokofiev sonata, there was no shortage of “shock value” moments; but Zimmermann was just as confident (and convincing) in deploying those moments as Prokofiev had been.
Nevertheless, both Josefowicz and Novacek seemed to recognize that they had to lighten up a bit after Zimmermann’s intensity. They thus decided to conclude their program with John Adams’ “Road Movies.” Adams himself has described this three-movement piece as “total whimsy;” and I have to confess that I always seem to relate to his whimsical side far more readily than the serious one. The piece seems to have been inspired by long drives that risk the onset of monotony.
The first movement is entitled “relaxed groove;” and, on the surface, it feels as if the listener can settle into a few familiar tropes. However, the pacing is anything but relaxed; and, in my case at least, the music seemed to evoke the prankish suggestion that monotony can easily turn into car sickness. At the other end of the piece, the final “40% swing” movement seems to be poking fun at software that serves as a cause of creative efforts, rather than a suite of supporting tools. Between these two extremes, the piece waxes lyrical in a movement called simply “meditative.” Josefowicz and Novacek gave a spirited account that, for the most part, did justice to the composer’s intimations of whimsy.
The program began with an arrangement for violin and piano by Friedrich Hermann of Jean Sibelius’ “Valse triste,” the best-known piece of music that Sibelius composed as incidental music for the play Kuolema (death). Josefowicz clearly appreciated the moody darkness that Sibelius evoked for dramatic purposes. She served up some uncanny uses of vibrato, often introducing it only after an initial statement of the tone with the sort of hollow quality one might expect from harmonic bowing. Hermann also engaged some imaginative ways to allow a theme almost to “dissolve” from one instrument to another, once again evoking a chilling rhetoric. This is the sort of music that would usually be performed as an encore, but it was perfect in setting the tone for the darkness that was about to follow in last night’s program.
The same could be said for the encore selection, Claus Ogerman’s arrangement of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Chaplin wrote this for his film Modern Times, and anyone who has seen that film knows just how much irony is lurking behind the “surface structure” of the sentimental words themselves. Much of Ogerman’s own creativity went into this arrangement, situating this simple little tune within a context that is just as intense as the one established by the film itself. After Adams’ whimsy, darkness returned to Herbst before the evening concluded.