By Clifton Noble Jr.
February 05, 2017
NORTHAMPTON - Valley Classical Concerts, formerly Music in Deerfield, presented a fascinating concert entitled "A Bridge to Beethoven," Sunday at 3 p.m. in Smith College's Sweeney Concert Hall.
The concert featured violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner, playing a sort of Beethoven sandwich. The two slices of bread were Beethoven's Sonata in D Major, Op. 12, No. 1 and the famous "Kreutzer" Sonata, Op. 47. The filling was Vijay Iyer's "Bridgetower Fantasy," commissioned and premiered in 2015, as part of Koh's "Bridge to Beethoven" project.
George Bridgetower, a Polish-born violin virtuoso whose father claimed to be an African prince, premiered the "Kreutzer" Sonata with Beethoven in 1803. In fact, Beethoven originally dedicated the sonata to Bridgetower, but withdrew it after the violinist insulted a female friend of the composer, and rededicated it to Rudolphe Kreutzer, who never played it.
Iyer described his Fantasy in a program note as "a collection of imaginings about George Bridgetower." The piece was certainly a collection of imaginings. Iyer imagined himself as John Cage for a while, requiring the pianist to knock on the wood of the keyboard cover, tap on the bottom of the case, and actually slam the keyboard cover against the body of the piano to articulate sections of his fantasy. From these dated effects and some atmospheric harmonics from the violin emerged manic cyclic figures executed in complex rhythmic unisons (more of a tribute to the players than the composer).
A possible second part of the piece began in vague, veiled lines in the piano, clouded with pedal, and draped with lazy glissandi from the violin. A possible third part began in chorale-like textures, repeating 10-12-note phrases supported by Hindemithian harmonies, accelerating to an eventual insectile pulsing, out of which burst occasional unexpected triads (A-flat major, etc.) The entire piece ended in a blistering inferno of B Major, as if to say it was about to recapitulate the first movement of the Kreutzer Sonata, but couldn't figure out how to get there.
Koh's "Bridge to Beethoven" project, pairing Beethoven's ten sonatas with works by contemporary composers, (Jorg Widmann, Andrew Norman, and Anthony Cheung join Vijay Iyer in this endeavor) is a superb idea, and deserves a lot of credit. It may succeed in enlarging the repertoire for the violin, or it may simply highlight Beethoven's enduring genius, but it ultimately draws deserved attention to art music.
The two Beethoven Sonatas surrounding the Bridgetower Fantasy were played exquisitely by both artists. Wosner's fleet fingers were undaunted by the passagework in either Op. 12 or Op. 47, and his effort to keep the massive sound of the wide-open 9-foot Steinway under control in the dense accompaniment of the later piece was heroically successful.
Koh's command of color and character painted vivid drama personas through both sonatas - one moment anxious and agitated, the next coy and secretive. Some of the more outrageous ornamental excesses of the Kreutzer Sonata seemed almost too elegantly finessed - too perfect for how over-the-top they were compositionally. But that is far more a testament to Koh's virtuosity than a criticism of interpretation.
When Valley Classical Concerts Artistic Director John Montanari concluded his welcome to the audience, he quipped that "...the Super Bowl has Lady Gaga, but WE have Jennifer Koh."
Pioneer Valley music fans have known and loved Koh for a long time. She came to the Musicorda Summer String Program at Mt. Holyoke College as an 11-year-old prodigy in 1987 and 1988 (and there were some Musicorda folks in the audience on Sunday to welcome her back). Around that time she also made her debut with the Chicago Symphony playing Paganini. A little more than ten years later, Koh was engaged by the Springfield Symphony (then under the direction of Mark Russell Smith) as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which she played masterfully on her Stradivarius violin.
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