San Francisco Classical Voice
By Jerry Kuderna
January 16, 2007
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Uncanny Duo

Recital Review

One of the joys of concertgoing is the promise of hearing young artists who can sweep aside your previously held conceptions, or misconceptions, about a particular composition or composer. Even better, if the artist is persuasive enough, listeners can gain a sense that music itself is still a relatively young art and that we are fortunate to hear its continuing development through the inclusion of new works alongside the tried and true. Such was the case with violinist Jennifer Koh and her superb partner, pianist Reiko Uchida, at their Saturday night recital in Herbst Theatre, presented under the auspices of San Francisco Performances.

The centerpiece of their program was the premiere of a new work by Jennifer Higdon, commissioned (partly by their presenter) for Koh and Uchida. Higdon teaches at the Curtis Institute, where the performers received some of their training. She obviously composes music with the specific abilities of its dedicatees in mind. Strings Poetic is a series of five pieces for violin and piano that reflect musical concerns held in common. While the work is hardly academic, it shows a solid and well-schooled background, and it requires both thoughtful virtuosity and imagination to match. Even after the brilliant performances of Janácek and Schubert sonatas that opened the program, I was a little taken aback to hear a new work played with such assurance and conviction, as if it had long been a staple of the repertory.

The first striking thing about this duo is their uncanny precision of ensemble. They don't merely play together — they breathe together and penetrate each other's sounds with such grace and ease that at times I felt they had become a single instrument, quite apart from the classic chamber-music model of soloist vs. accompanist. Indeed, in the outer movements, titled "Climb Jagged" and "Jagged Climb," the players communicated a sense of total interdependence that was somewhat scary. You felt as if both players were roped together, ascending up and rappelling down the registers of their instruments with breathtaking abandon. If one of them fell, it would have been all over.

Magical playing of works new and old
Higdon has a wonderful ear for sound. She opens the work with a thud in the bass section of the piano, as if to emphasize the instrument's partially wooden construction. Other times she creates a hollow, muted sound by reaching inside the piano and touching a string as it is struck — a not-so-unusual effect anymore, but at the sometimes dizzying tempi Higdon prescribes, it was highly effective. Combined with Koh's precisely placed pizzicati, the music rose to a new level, sounding like a cross between a koto and a hammer dulcimer.

The second movement, titled "Nocturne," is a long-lined melody in which Koh's gorgeous sound and superb phrasing were used to the fullest extent. She is primarily a lyrical player who can also be dramatic, but who chooses to make her points through understatement and inflection. She was in her element here, as she spun a deeply felt aria with inflections that ranged from restless yearning to pathos, transforming her sound by slight degrees until, at the top of the phrase, an intimate parlando seemed to speak simply of wisdom and acceptance. Another miraculous moment was the hushed pizzicato "duet" at the conclusion of the third movement, "The Blue Hills of Mist," in which the hall seemed to shrink to the size of a living room and we held our breath.

After intermission, Koh demonstrated again her commitment to the music of our time with solo pieces by György Kurtág. Selected from Signs, Games, and Messages, the pieces contained bits of cryptology that showed how the smallest wisps of sound can be telling, and even revelatory, when delivered with total sincerity. In her introductory remarks, Koh mentioned that it is often the simple things that prove most difficult for the performer. She then proceeded to hypnotize the audience into believing that two plus two did not necessarily make four — that the number of strings on the fiddle was as many as she chose them to be, and that this was all the "string theory" we would ever need to know.

With not a warhorse or a razzle-dazzle encore to be heard all evening, the program concluded with Schumann's Sonata in D Minor — an appropriate conclusion to a serious, yet wonderfully engaging, recital. Whatever weaknesses I had felt existed in the composer's late music seemed irrelevant when so persuasively brought to life as it was here. We can only hope that Jennifer Koh and Reiko Uchida will keep up their collaboration, and continue both to revive the old and to give birth to the new.

(Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who teaches at Diablo Valley College.)

© 2007 Jerry Kuderna, all rights reserved

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