Although they do not fill the stages, the violinist Leonidas Kavakos and the pianist Yuja wang are the classical music equivalent of huge pop stars. Wang is the better known of the two in part because of the attention she garnered by dressing as such, arguably more conservatively than Lady Gaga and Expensive, but still eye-catching compared to the usual classic style. That night, she surprised a little with a black dress, perhaps to match Kavakos’ dark tuxedo and serious music to follow. The unusual program included the 1st and 3rd sonatas for violin and keyboard by JS Bach, the sonata in G major by Shostakovich for violin and piano and the 2nd sonata for violin and piano by Busoni. None of the more familiar works that such a star duo would usually perform were in the mix.
The informative pre-concert speaker, recognizing the “ear-stretching” challenges of the programs, devoted much of his time to a technical analysis of the structure and meaning of various terms such as trio sonata, row of tones and ostinato. Understanding how composers work with their materials to achieve the effects they seek may add to a listener’s satisfaction, but the analysis was a misleading prelude to the passionate music and performances to follow, starting with Bach who said one day that music exists to praise God and refresh the soul.
Bach’s third sonata for violin and keyboard seems motivated by this point of view. Sublime first and third
the movements are combined with the second and the fourth alive and earthy. Kavakos gave a nod to original performance practices with pure tone and limited light vibrato. Its original hue was combined with Wang’s skillful use of the scale of a modern piano, from exquisite delicacy to considerable power. Proponents of the harpsichord’s limited expressiveness in 18th century performances are masochistic purists.
Busoni’s second sonata was the longest and least known work on the program, and by far the most romantic. As a result, Kavakos adapted to a richer, richer sound with greater vibrato. The first two of the three movements make you wonder why the work is not done more often. A beautiful melody emphasizes the first while the second is a joyous frolic. I believe the third explains the puzzle. It includes material from the first two movements and, linking it to the previous piece in the concert, includes a long theme and variations on a choral melody by Bach. The movement consumes two-thirds of the work’s half-hour duration, an impressive demonstration of composition technique, but far too long as the variations become frustrating and predictable.
The audience was calmly attentive throughout the first half, except for a half-dozen distracting sinus-driven sniffs near the back of the theater that had the surprising volume of an elephant trying to clear something stuck. in his trunk. Skipping the gig should have been considered.
There were fewer distractions after intermission. Bach returns with his first sonata for violin and keyboard, Kavakos revisiting a Bach style closer to the original while Wang again deploys his considerable expressive universe. The pianist kept her habit of changing her dress for the second half, this time from a short black and low neckline to a colorful long. Kavakos, perhaps in keeping with his more conservative interpretation of Bach, remained in standard attire. The pair’s bows were another interesting contrast, that of standard Kavakos, as Wang leaned at the waist, her head suddenly almost knee-deep as if about to somersault in the audience.
Shostakovich’s Sonata in G major for violin and piano concluded the concert. Bach’s uplifting musical stories stand in stark contrast to the Russian composer’s sonata with its combination of casual satirical sarcasm, overwhelming sadness, and furious anger. The duo were in full swing with a spectacular technical demonstration, so good that it disappeared in full realization of the composer’s intention. The audience seemed stunned to be silent after the bitter violence and the final silent despair of the last two movements.
A concert of exceptional technique and power of interpretation. Kavakos and Wang deserve the fame they have earned.
Visit the La Jolla Music Society’s website for the program of his next concerts.