Concert Review: Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall

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Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos at the post-concert reception, Feb. 10, 2017.

Earlier this month, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang gave their first joint appearance in Seattle in a recital that will long be remembered by those fortunate enough to attend.  Their recital happened to fall on Ms. Wang’s birthday, but it was the audience that received a present: a program of music that, while by no means esoteric, was certainly lesser known, and just as certain to expand and enrich the musical lives of everyone in attendance.

I had lingering reservations about attending this recital, reservations that had nothing to do with the program or with Leonidas Kavakos, whom I had heard perform with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2006, and whom I featured on this blog two years ago in a performance of the Korngold violin concerto.  My concerns were related solely to Yuja Wang, who, while she possesses a virtuoso technique, seems often in her programs to emphasize style over substance, and whose attire seems inevitably to distract the viewer from the music and overshadow her musicianship.  For an in-depth discussion of the style vs. substance dichotomy as it relates to Ms. Wang, I refer the reader to this article from the Sept. 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

My concerns about Ms. Wang’s attire vanished the moment she appeared on stage, wearing an elegant, floor-length, off-white gown that would have passed muster in even the most conservative of concert settings.  Relieved that I would be able to focus all my attention on the music, I settled back to enjoy the first piece on the program: the Violin Sonata by Leoš Janáček.  This is an exceptionally passionate work, one that both challenges and rewards the listener.  The second movement is especially tender, and was the high point of the sonata for me.  Mr. Kavakos and Ms. Wang clearly see themselves as servants of the music, and surely won many new friends for Janáček with this performance.

After the passion of the Janáček, I was grateful for the peaceful opening of Schubert’s Fantasie in C major.  In the playful second movement, Wang and Kavakos demonstrated ensemble playing of the highest order.  The song-like third movement reminded us once again of Schubert’s unsurpassed gift for melody, and filled the concert hall with the same spiritual ambiance one might feel in a cathedral.  Despite the diverse character of the four sections of the last movement, it felt unified from beginning to end, and the main theme of the Allegro vivace conveyed a surpassing joy.

The second half of the program began with Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor.  Composed in 1917, this sonata was Debussy’s final major work.  Unlike the other pieces on the program, all of which deserve a wider audience, this sonata has been a staple of the violinist’s repertoire from the beginning.  When Ms. Wang played the two soft chords with which it begins, and which carried beautifully all the way to my seat in the third tier, I was struck at once with the thought, “What a touch!”  Later, reflecting on the performance as a whole, I noted, “Just wonderful playing!”

The final work on the program was Bartok’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor.  This sonata was composed in 1921, and I cannot hear it except as a reaction to the horrors of World War I.  The first movement, marked allegro appassionato, burns white-hot from the very first notes.  Both players need a huge technique to carry off this piece.  The second movement, adagio, conveys utter desolation.  All is lost.  Kavakos and Wang adopted a more relaxed tempo in this movement than one sometimes hears, which added to the sense of desolation.  The third movement, marked allegro, is simply breathtaking: a 19th century friska in 20th century garb, building to an overpowering climax as it speeds to the finish.

The effect was overwhelming.  The audience loved it, and gave Kavakos and Wang an enthusiastic standing ovation.  In return, they gave us one encore, the graceful Andantino from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A Major, D. 574, which, coming after the Bartok, may have been as necessary (for audience and performers alike) as cooling out a horse after a race.

All in all, it was an extraordinary recital, notable both for the artistry of the performers and the seriousness of the program.  There were no Kreisler transcriptions, no Carmen Fantasy.  Even the encore was not your typical crowd-pleaser.  There were no lollipops anywhere.  Instead, Kavakos and Wang gave us a four-course feast for the musical soul.  I look forward to their next appearance here.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 11:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta

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Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček (pronounced LAY-oash yah-NAH-chek) was born on July 3, 1854 in Hukvaldy in the Czech Republic.  He showed a talent for music early on, but following his graduation from the Prague Organ School in 1875, he labored for many years in relative anonymity as a music teacher and choirmaster in Brno.  He was almost 50 before his first major work, the opera Jenufa, was performed, and 62 before he became really well known.  In the last 12 years of his life, however, he turned out masterpieces with astonishing frequency, including the symphonic poem Taras Bulba, the opera The Cunning Little Vixen, and the Sinfonietta presented here.  He died in 1928 at age 74, an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.

Regarding the Sinfonietta, we learn from Wikipedia that…

The work is typical of Janáček’s tight construction, the material of each movement deriving from the opening motif.  It features several variants based on Janáček’s original fanfare.  The first movement is scored only for brass and percussion.  The second movement begins with a rapid ostinato from the wind, but later has a more lyrical episode.  The third begins quietly in the strings, but is interrupted by a stern figure in the trombones, leading to another fast dance-like passage.  In the fourth movement, Janáček celebrates the newly liberated Czechoslovakia with a joyous trumpet fanfare.  The finale begins in the key of E-flat minor with a calm retrograde version of the opening melody.  However, this quickly moves into a triumphant finale, the return of the opening fanfare decorated with swirling figures in the strings and wind.

I was introduced to this piece through a 1966 recording featuring the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.  While the orchestral writing is brilliant throughout, the majestic, triumphal fanfares in the first and last movements especially made a lasting impression.  Truly a glorious introduction to Janáček.

In this extraordinary live recording from the 2011 London Proms, we hear the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England conducted by Sir Mark Elder.  The tempo indications for the five movements, together with their subtitles and start times in the video below, are as follows:

  • I. Allegretto — Allegro maestoso (Fanfare) (0:06)
  • II. Andante — Allegretto (The Castle, Brno) (2:26)
  • III. Moderato (The Queen’s Monastery, Brno) (9:05)
  • IV. Allegretto (The Street Leading to the Castle) (14:51)
  • V. Andante con moto (The Town Hall, Brno) (18:13)

Published in: on April 30, 2016 at 12:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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