Thursday, November 17, 2011

Three Young Masters

I have been going to concerts at the Disney Hall in downtown L.A. more often these days. I find that as I grow older I need the live experience of music, and the hall is a wonderful venue for concerts of all kinds. Actually, I rather love the space, which is eclectic, welcoming, acoustically brilliant, and clad in wood, which, being a man of the 19th century, I enjoy.

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing three young masters of their crafts. The first was the wonderful Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, whose performance of the Bach Chaconne in D minor from the second partita for solo violin (which is my favorite piece of music), impressed me very much when I heard it by accident on the radio. I was so taken with her interpretation that I had to remain in the car long after I had turned off the engine to find out who the violinist was.

Now let me say that the great Chaconne is unique even among Bach's works. Each of the pieces for solo violin, the partitas and sonatas, is a dance form, and they average three or four minutes in length. Then there comes the Chaconne, which is nearly fifteen minutes long. It is breathtakingly complex and beautiful, and just given its length, it is clear that Bach knew that he was doing something special, something completely different from all the other pieces in those extraordinary suites.

What he was doing was paying tribute to his predecessor Biber's exquisite Guardian Angel Sonata, which is the capstone of Biber's Mystery Sonatas for violin and continuo, which Bach admired. In them, Biber - a truly great and much overlooked composer of the early Baroque - wrote one sonata for each of the fifteen mysteries of the rosary. He then added a passacaglia for solo violin as a tribute to the guardian angel, and this was his masterpiece. It was an evocation of the Guardian Angel Sonata, in the more complex and challenging chaconne form, that Bach intended when he wrote the great Chaconne in D minor for solo violin.

For me, the Chaconne is the litmus test for any violinist, and Janine Jansen played it masterfully on that radio performance which I listened to in my driveway. So when I heard that she was playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at the Disney I rushed to buy tickets.

She did not disappoint me. Much larger a woman than I had expected, she took powerful command of the stage, communicated expertly with Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra, and played the Mendelssohn (one of the five great violin concertos) beautifully. Her size enabled her to muscle the instrument in a way I would not have expected. She is strong, clear in her voice, brilliant in her technique, and supremely confident. I have never heard the cadenza played more feelingly and touchingly, a real accomplishment for a violinist of her power. She could easily have bullied her way through it, but instead she expressed it with true reverence and delicacy. It was a wonderful performance.

A week or so later, I heard on the radio that Hillary Hahn was coming to Los Angeles. For several years, she has been one of my favorite violinists, and I jumped at the chance to see her perform live in concert again. I had heard her some years ago, on my birthday, play the Sibelius Concerto (perhaps my favorite violin concerto) with the L.A. Phil when she was still a teenager, and had been wowed by her talent. And her solo Bach, which I had heard several times on the radio, is among my favorite interpretations. I was looking forward to seeing her again, no longer a girl, but a grown woman.

Her program of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms was interspersed with pieces by contemporary composers - she announced from the stage that all had been written in the past few months, and some expressly for her. In each she was accompanied by a young Russian pianist who was also marvelous. It was a brilliant program, highly intelligent in its choice of material, provocative, and, at points, beautiful and moving. But I think most of us were there for the war horses, and especially for the Bach.

She played the first sonata for solo violin, which, she said, she had performed in part in her first major solo recital twenty years before (she is only 31!). It was flawless Hillary Hahn; perfect in technique, filled with reverence for the music but also with original ideas and personal insights. It was, in short, a joy. I said to my companion afterwards that hearing Hillary Hahn play solo Bach in person is one of the greatest artistic experiences we can have in our lifetimes. I compared it to taking my girls to see Ian McKellan's King Lear. I truly believe she is on that level; one of the greatest interpreters of Bach of our times.

I paid her the homage of waiting in line after the concert to have her sign my program for my son. My reason was simple: I wanted to look into the eyes of a genius. Now those who follow this blog will know that I use the word genius very sparingly. But I attribute it unhesitatingly to Hillary Hahn. She is a true genius of violin performance, and her playing of Bach is an experience not to be missed by anyone who appreciates great art.

She was much smaller than I expected - as petite as Janine Jansen was robust. Still with the allure of a teenager, she has, nonetheless, grown into one of the consummate artists of this age. Her program notes bespoke a keen intelligence, and her choice of program an enthusiasm for the modern as well as the traditional. She told me that she had graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; I mentioned that that was my hometown and that I had lived at 19th and Spruce. She smiled and said she had lived at 18th and Locust, just down the street. I must say that I was charmed.

The third artist whom I went to see was the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang. I had heard about him and had once heard a recording of his playing a Liszt rhapsody, but I had not thought much of it as it seemed to me rather exhibitionist. However, a dear friend was in town and there was nothing else to do, so we went.

I learned a good deal from the experience. Lang Lang is much more than the Liszt recordings and video for which he has become a sort of Asian cult figure -- he is an excellent pianist. He played solo Bach, and did so respectably, though not with great insight or originality. Then he turned to one of the late Schubert sonatas, and acquitted himself with great aplomb and feeling. I love the late Schubert, and was, frankly, anxious about what he would do with it. He did wonders. His technique was exquisite, admirably suited to the Schubert, and his ideas and feelings were spot on.

What came across to me especially was his deep love for the music, and his intense personal involvement with it. In performance, he gives everything to the piece, which is clear from both his playing and his body language. He is very enjoyable to watch, and since he never makes a false gesture or plays a false note, one can relax and enjoy the music with him. The Schubert showed me that he is, indeed, a genuine master of his art.

But it was in the second half of the program that he came truly into his own. He played twelve Chopin etudes, and played them about as well as anyone could, expressing himself with tremendous confidence, skill and feeling. The Schubert had been wonderful; the Chopin was his element. He was at turns delicate and soulful, powerful and bombastic. But all was measured precisely to the music; nothing was gratuitous, no matter how far he took the material. The audience loved it, and with good reason. Lang Lang is a master of Chopin.

In his encores, too, his peculiar talent shone. He played Liszt, for which, I think he is especially famous; and a piano transcription of Paganini's Campanella, which was exuberant and delightful in its unvarnished virtuosity. Though I knew little about him beforehand, it was clear to me that it is with the late romantics that he feels most at home, and it would be difficult to imagine anyone more in tune with them aesthetically and temperamentally than he.