San Jose Mercury News
By Georgia Rowe
November 5, 2015
With Herbst Theatre newly reopened after two years of renovations, San Francisco's premier recital hall is once again open for business.
Wednesday evening brought violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner in a dynamic duo recital, performing the first of four programs titled "Bridge to Beethoven." Presented by San Francisco Performances, it's an intriguing concept, one that pairs Beethoven violin sonatas with specially commissioned new works by contemporary composers.
Wednesday's program featured Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, paired with the composer's earlier Sonata in D major, Op. 12, No. 1, and Vijay Iver's "Bridgetower Fantasy." Koh, who made her San Francisco Performances debut in 2003, is simply remarkable -- an artist who combines a questing spirit with tonal refinement and a kind of fearless virtuosity. Anyone who witnessed her extended violin solo in Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach" at Cal Performances a few years back can attest to her brilliance.
Yet Wosner, making his first San Francisco Performances appearance on this program, was every bit her match. Together, these two musicians traversed the evening's works with superb style and insight.
The performance of the "Kreutzer" sonata was especially fine. Koh sounded fervent and focused in the prayerful opening phrases, and her delicately etched lines supplied alluring contrast to Wosner's expressive playing in the second movement's theme and variations. The finale's headlong rush to the double bar was smoothly calibrated, with both artists delivering Beethoven's impassioned score with verve and precision.
The D-major Sonata, which opened the program, also received a terrific reading. Koh's impetuous, bright-toned phrasing was attractively set against Wosner's flowing, articulate pianism; the second movement's variations deftly captured Beethoven's high-spirited mix of wit and turbulence.
In between the Beethoven sonatas, there was Iyer's "Bridgetower Fantasy." Commissioned by MusicBridge, Inc., it is named for George Bridgetower, the 18th-century Afro-European violinist for whom Beethoven wrote the "Kreutzer" Sonata and who partnered with the composer to perform its 1803 premiere.
History wasn't kind to Bridgetower -- after the sonata's premiere, he and Beethoven had a falling out over a female acquaintance, and Beethoven revised the dedication to name the virtuoso violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer -- who didn't like the work and never got around to playing it.
Iyer, a former S.F. Performances jazz artist in residence, builds his fantasy around fragments from the "Kreutzer." They rise up in eerie sonorities -- percussive strikes to the keyboard; high, keening cries from the violin; a slow, nostalgic theme played in unison. Eventually, the glassy music of the opening phrases returns, like a sepia portrait slowly fading to white. Iyer gives "Bridgetower" an agitated finale, but for the most part, the score makes a subdued impression. One can argue about how it relates to Beethoven, but Koh and Wosner gave it an arresting performance.
Wednesday's performance was just the beginning. Koh and Wosner will return to Herbst Theatre on Nov. 7, pairing three additional Beethoven sonatas with Jörg Widmann's "Sommersonate." The remaining "Bridge to Beethoven" programs are scheduled for April 2 and 3. Adventurous chamber music lovers won't want to miss them.
San Francisco Performances
Presents the "Bridge to Beethoven Project" with violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai WosnerWhere: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness, San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7, March 30 and April 2
Tickets: $40-$65, 415-392-2545, sfperformances.org
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