Monday, September 8, 2014

First report of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' preliminary round: Do you catch their drift?

When Walt Whitman sent his post-Civil War edition of "Leaves of Grass" out into the world, he included a small verse apologia starting with the imperative "Shut not your doors to me proud libraries," claiming a place among more conventional authors and giving this advice to readers: "The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing."

I thought of this as applied to music over the course of the second through fourth preliminary sessions of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis at the Indiana History Center. What will distinguish the 37 participants during four days of brief recitals — and pass 16 of them on to the semifinals — will be how well they catch the drift of the music they're presenting.

Allowing for characteristic Whitmanian hyperbole, the words of his book are by no means "nothing," just as the notes written by Mozart, Bach, Paganini and an array of "encore piece" composers and arrangers can't be considered of no account. The participants know this for sure. Careful study was evident in every performance I heard. Technical aplomb was the norm. Of course, there were some flaws along the way — spots of poor intonation, a blurred passage here and there, a "whistled" pitch.

But the drift — which the Oxford English Dictionary succinctly defines as "meaning, tenor, scope" — cannot be ignored, glossed over or set aside in a successful musical performance. On the whole, it was in performing movements from the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach and the Caprices,  op. 1, of Nicolo Paganini that each violinist invited the audience to discern whether or not "the drift of it [was] every thing" to him or her.

What is the drift of the mighty Chaconne (or Ciaccona) from the D minor partita, for example?  It's universally acknowledged as a profound piece of music, but how advisable is it to go after profundity from the start, as Chiharu Taki did Sunday afternoon? It sounded like breaking down the door, and after that there wasn't much to do but ransack the place; hers was a very loud performance. Or you can launch a stately interpretation, full of clarity and deliberation, as Andrea Segar did Monday morning, keeping the tone centered and showing an awareness of the work's architecture.

Mariya Krasnyuk
But is that the drift of the Chaconne? Or is it more like what Mariya Krasnyuk offered Monday afternoon?  She resisted every opportunity to become aggressive. She appeared to take time out for thinking. More important, her interpretation seemed to replicate experience. She evinced superb control over tension and release. For once I was moved by the Chaconne, as I used to be when first hearing it. That was particularly so in rapid string-crossing episodes with changing harmonies — echoed briefly twice afterward, once just before the final statement of the basic theme.  I hear those three instances as, respectively, struggle, the will to triumph, and final acceptance of something less than triumph. What Richard Strauss made explicit in "Death and Transfiguration," Bach offers implicitly here. That's the drift, I believe, and Krasnyuk caught it.

Other participants chose pairs of sonata movements — something with a slow introduction, followed by a fugue.  Generally, all who made one of these choices (there are three possibilities, with the hardest one as yet unheard) knew what to make of the slow movements. But not every violinist is fit for a fugue. In two movements from Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Dominika Przech's creamy, chaste tone was attractive if a bit neutral expressively in the "Grave," but the fugue that followed seemed occasionally rushed and impatient. True, a fugue can be deadly if deprived of forward momentum, but how does she feel about this music? I was wondering.

I'll credit Jennifer Liu with catching the drift of the same piece of music, though for my taste her playing was too focused on grandeur. To some tastes, making a Bach violin fugue sound like a close relative of his organ fugues is a natural interpretive choice, but to mine it seemed slightly forced. I was swept away, however, by  Stephen Kim's performance of the same fugue. He gave a nice weight to the start of every phrase, so it was evident nothing trivial was taking place here. But he didn't go for the grandeur, and he was a master at keeping every voice clear. I thought: "He must actually like fugues. Bravo!"
Stephen Kim

It's dangerous to surmise how much feeling an artist is investing in a performance, but with the fugue it becomes quickly evident if a performance hasn't got beyond a studied manner. Let me quote another one of those crazy hyperbolic poets. "Since feeling is first," E.E. Cummings wrote, "who pays attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you."  The poet's aim is seduction, but let's stick with music. Of course a musician has to pay attention "to the syntax of things," particularly in Bach.  But a case can be made that "feeling is first" even here.

If it's not, you get somewhat effortful fugue playing, even if the momentum is good, as it was in Stephen Waarts' playing of the A minor fugue (from Sonata No. 2). And restatements of the subject, which you can't escape in this form until the composer is done with it, cannot afford to sound  perfunctory. Anna Savkina similarly had such moments in her playing the G minor fugue, with color leaching away. Hers was among the few sonata performances with technical difficulties in the slow movement; there were unsteady long notes at both ends of the Adagio.

Violinists who chose partita movements had a wonderful opportunity to show their affinity for dance forms. Daniel Cho's interpretation of paired movements from the B minor partita took an aristocratic approach, with subtle accents and a nice forward impulse, so that the dance feeling was sustained. Tessa Lark reveled in the Preludio, Loure, Gavotte en Rondeau and two minuets from the E major partita, apparently enjoying the rhythmic as well as the melodic variety. And Ji Yoon Lee made us see adroit bodies dancing fitly in her sparkling account of the Allemande and Double and Corrente and Double from the B minor Partita (No. 1).

A different set of hazards is abundant in the the Paganini Caprices. The tunes make the heart go pit-a-pat sometimes (particularly in No. 11, the most often chosen among the participants of the 24 in Op. 1). But even the lyrical portions present technical challenges — octaves in double stop, treacherous interval leaps. And the rapid contrasting sections seem designed to throw off the unprepared — even those who may have been fully prepared the previous time through. We have heard here one or two well-prepared Caprice performances that turned the off-the-wall composer into an upstanding bourgeois.

This music is full or personality, however, and etude-like mastery of it misses the mark. A few performances of No. 11 didn't give much emphasis to the frisky, skipping quality of the middle section. Jinju Cho's No. 11 on Sunday afternoon had the right capricious feeling throughout. Kim's was remarkable for the ruminative approach he took to the opening section, which repeats at the end. Violinists can't  help playing it with something of that quality, but so far we've  heard a few Paganini interpretations that made the music sound like something to get through with minimal damage. It does the listener no good to share in a player's apparent relief that a performance is over.

Performances of No. 9 that don't seem to hear the flute in the opening phrases or the hunting horns in the "answer" have to be questioned. The composer explicitly directs the player to imitate those instruments. Taki's account was simply hard-charging, not very evocative.

The most famous of the Caprices, No. 24, is the outlier in being a set of variations on a theme. It's one so alluring that it has been used fruitfully by many composers since.  No. 24 was tossed off — and that is not pejoratively meant — near the end of Kim's recital. Technically in fine fettle, it also seemed to propose "since feeling is first,"  while — peace be to Cummings — remaining always attentive "to the syntax of thiings."

Tomorrow I will take into consideration the Mozart sonata performances, as well as the encore pieces. This will also mean focusing on the pianists, who were of course out of the picture with Bach and Paganini. Two more days of preliminary performances remain, with the tantalizing promise that they may "wholly kiss you."