It's a rare occasion when I think of Bach while listening to Finnish classical music, but just as Xiao Wang ripped through the arpeggiated cadenza of the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor at Saturday's Texas Music Festival "German Masters" musicale, I was certain that this young emerging fiddler knew his baroque solo partitas and sonatas like most know the ABCs or the words and gestures to "I'm a little teapot."
As the winner of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition, also the recipient of the Audience Choice Award, the 25-year-old Chinese violinist earned a spot on the evening's playbill. That was the opening of the epic showpiece, a concerto that remained somewhat hidden and obscure until the early '90s.
Wang's winnings also include a solo engagement at Gewandhaus zu Leipzig concert hall in Germany with the Akademisches Orchester Leipzig next year.
Just like Sibelius, Bach is an all or nothing thing. You get it, it's transcendent or it's as boring as watching a slideshow of someone else's family reunion — yawn.
The audience was (mostly) in a quiet trance holding on to Xiao Wang's every nuance across this 17-minute large scale sonata form movement.
To "get" Bach one must parse through the harmonic language to glean the implications and tendencies of each note, discern their function and interpret their intended journey. Only then can musical intuition be based on the tonal building blocks and structures that hold emotional significance. Skip that step and it's a free for all, in other words, a mess that may appear pretty on the surface, but it's as senseless as gibberish.
It's often that the first cadenza in the Allegro moderato is treated like a "let-me-show-you-how-fast-I-can-play-a-gazillion-notes" passage. But this isn't the kind of flash trash Sarasate, Paganini or Wieniawski penned. Rather it's worthy of Father Bach, where hearing how each tone develops a sequence and, at the same time, extends a melodic line is what's mesmerizing.
Moreover, key centers matter. D minor and modulations B-flat major and minor, G minor each have a distinct color. Listeners without perfect or relative pitch may not be able to pinpoint tonalities, but aesthetic instinct doesn't rely in note labelling to garner expressive prowess.
Wang got Sibelius just as he understands Bach, evident by this Great Day Houston performance.
And despite one mannerless couple who decided it was appropriate to change seats and converse while Wang tolled his first three notes, his Sibelius was technically and artistically solid. Courtesy of spot on octave double stops, soaring melodies and thick (not short, but stout) tenor-esque riffs sul G and one intense, well-paced cadenza prior to the recapitulation, the audience was (mostly) in a quiet trance holding on to his every nuance across this 17-minute large scale sonata form movement.
Yet every once in a while Skou-Larsen looked at the brass; and we all know what happens when the conductor looks at the brass.
Strauss & Brahms
Here are the German masters the title spoke of, both richly indulgent, perchance a bit stout like the above mentioned teapot.
What was remarkable about the performance of Strauss' tone poem Death and Transfiguration can be attributed to Skou-Larsen's understanding of how to work with students. He tamed what they do best (gutsy, passionate playing) and affixed sensitivity and control. Solo woodwinds and strings had space to add personality, but without losing metric structure.
Yet every once in a while Skou-Larsen looked at the brass; and we all know what happens when the conductor looks at the brass (stand behind the horns as I did while putting a video piece together, you'll know what I mean). I admit to having aversion to Skou-Larsen's faster tempi at the coda during rehearsals. In performance, in context, his interpretation felt right, poignant and tranfigured — as it should — fitting for the theme that John Williams lifted for Superman.
When it came down to Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F major, fatigue seeped in for the opening Allegro con brio, a side-effect of an ambitious, chop-busting program — though that didn't last too long. A charming, bucolic second movement invigorated the musicians enough to render a gorgeous, stereotypically-German Poco allegretto where the flutes and horns floated atop a heavy texture.
The closing movement, well, that was just chromatic oscillating fun.