A trio of violin concerts

Fiddlers three
(or, why classical audiences live longer)

TOM PURDOM

    Gloria Justen must have had a busy pre-Tax Day weekend.  
    Saturday night: Premiere new piece for solo violin and orchestra with Orchestra 2001.
    Sunday afternoon: Fill regular assignment as concertmaster of Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
    Sunday evening: Repeat Orchestra 2001 premiere at Swarthmore. 
    Monday night: Repeat Chamber Orchestra performance.

    The premiere was commissioned by James Freeman, the director of Orchestra 2001, as a memorial to his mother. Florence Margaret Knopf Freeman was a violinist who began her career in the 1930s, a time when women were still establishing a beachhead in the orchestral world. According to the memories Freeman included in the program notes, she auditioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the conductor, Charles Munch, told her husband she was a marvelous musician but “my hands are tied.”   At a wedding, the mother of the bride objected to the presence of a woman in a string quartet and the foursome had to reduce to a string trio.

    In her remarks before the premiere, composer Andrea Clearfield said she had three aims when she wrote her Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra. She wanted to pay tribute to the romantic chamber music of Florence Freeman’s era, she wanted to say something about memory, and she wanted to display Gloria Justen’s talents. She achieved the first objective, wisely, by suggesting romantic music rather than trying to imitate it.  Some of the hints of romantic music that ran through the Romanza were also played slightly fast, like recollections running through your head. 

    As for her third objective: The entire piece was a continuous workout that kept the soloist operating close to the limits of her craft.  The sight of a first-class woman violinist playing a first-class premiere by a woman composer was, of course, the best memorial James Freeman could have arranged for his mother.

    The Orchestra 2001 concert was the first event in an unplanned three-concert violin mini-festival. The performers at the other concerts were a rising young star from Holland and a legendary Italian violinist. The selections at the three events spanned the Western tradition of violin music from 1773 to some time around ten p.m. EDT on the evening of April 14, 2007.

Sure hands, controlled body language
 
    The young Dutch star was Janine Jansen, who made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut playing Max Bruch’s 1868 violin concerto.

    I prefer violinists who keep their body language to a minimum. Hyperactive soloists frequently put too much energy into superfluous motion. Janine Jansen is a happy exception. She strikes dramatic poses but her hands still do the job. 

    Jansen started off with an exceptionally strong tone and a sure control over her instrument, and she maintained both qualities through all three movements. You assume big-time soloists will look good in the flashy sections, but she had Bruch’s lyrical slow movement under firm management, too.

A satire played by a superhero

    The legendary violinist was Salvatore Accardo, who doubled as conductor and soloist for the Chamber Orchestra programs that filled in the gaps in Gloria Justin’s weekend schedule. In the first half, Accardo conducted while he soloed in two pieces: a 1733 Baroque concerto by Locatelli and Paganini’s Variations on Il carnevale di Venezia.

    Both pieces spotlighted Accardo’s formidable skills, but the Paganini was also a charmer. In most sets of variations, the original theme eventually becomes unrecognizable. In the Paganini, you can hear the essence of the familiar tune (“My hat it has three corners”) in every episode. The variations alternate between schmaltzy emotional interludes and showoff sections in which the violinist indulges in tricks like fast slides down the length of the strings and pizzicatos that involve simultaneous plucks with both hands. The whole piece is almost a satire on violin music— but a satire that can only be played by a superhero of the violin universe.

    My BSR colleague Dan Coren recently suggested that Philadelphia music audiences might be somewhat older than those at other types of attractions because music helps you live longer. I attended all three of these concerts (and a couple of others) during a single six-day period, and all took place within a comfortable walking distance of my Center City abode. When you add the benefits of aerobic exercise to the stimulations of new faces, new music, and the standard excitements of concert going, the mix does, in fact, look a lot like the kind of thing the doctors have been ordering.



To read a response, click here.
To read Dan Coren's review of the Orchestra/Janine Jansen concert, click here.