Review: Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series
By Perry Tannenbaum
Broadway has been closed down for nearly a year, opera remains in hibernation, while symphony and chamber concerts have slimmed down and gone virtual. Local theatre works, when they aren’t masked or outdoors, have diminished to Zoom or Skype proportions, modest in length and ambition. The preeminent pre-pandemic buzzwords, premiere and debut, when they’re used at all, are now applied by publicists to hurriedly-produced series of webcasts rather to performers or works.
How refreshing, then, to come upon the latest installment in Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series, which sported the Duke debut of two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist James Ehnes and the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Sonatine for Violin and Piano. After acknowledging in his opening remarks that Duke Performances was “trying to celebrate its 75th anniversary,” Chamber Arts Society of Durham director George Copen proclaimed that the Kernis piece would formally premiere “this very hour.” That’s about as precise as you can be on a webcast that remains continuously accessible to ticket holders for three days.
Fleshed out with additional sonatas by Schubert, Prokofiev, and Saint-Saëns, the video stretched out for over 90 minutes, almost epic for a webcast. There was no intermission, of course, and the estimable Orion Weiss, no stranger to Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium, was at the keyboard. Weiss remained in the background during Ehnes’s intros, but as soon as the duo launched into Schubert’s Sonata in G Minor, it was clear that he was a full partner in the musical collaboration. There were extended passages in the opening Allegro giusto when Ehnes was quietly sawing away while Weiss merrily carried the main load. Conversely, when Ehnes had the lead, Weiss was churning away behind him, probably more challenged in his backup chores. A syncopated three-note phrase that the men played together at the outset was the only turbulence on the otherwise placid flow of the movement, recurring intermittently along the way and reprised emphatically to crisply close out.
An early work written at the age of 19 but only published after Schubert’s death, when the composer had left us far mightier works, this sonata and two others written even earlier were called Sonatinas when they were originally published – and Jascha Heifetz hasn’t been alone in retaining that title in recordings. But Schubert comes through in the Andante as the imaginative melodicist we associate with his maturity, and it was pleasurable watching Ehnes and Weiss as they took turns embracing the enchanting lyricism. The ensuing Menuetto: Allegro vivace proved to be the shortest and swiftest movement. Yet this little movement, despite its sonatina scale, developed a pair of themes and delivered some of the most rugged moments overall. Three thumping chords introduced the final Allegro moderato, like an invitation to dance, and the celebration slowed down for romantic episodes a couple of times, swept aside by the prevailing party spirit.
Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D was originally written for flute and piano in 1943, but violinist David Oistrakh was so enamored with the piece that he had the composer adapt it for violin, with extra trimmings (double bowing and harmonics), by the following year when he premiered it. Having already recorded the piece twice with different pianists, Ehnes probably didn’t need to say that he preferred the violin version, but the declaration certainly raised my expectations, since I’ve loved the piece ever since the vinyl recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal with Alfred Holeček became one of that great flutist’s first albums to grace my collection. In recent years, I’ve acquired two Oistrakh recordings of the piece as well. Ehnes didn’t fall short of any of those recordings, so I can only envy those who might hear this piece for the first time in his performance. On violin, the opening Moderato is more tender with more pent-up passion in the agitated passages; on flute, the music is more soaring, soulful, and serene.
Thrilling, exuberant, and frantic as it was, Ehnes’s bravura on the ensuing Presto did not bear out the violinist’s claim that Oistrakh had called for a brisker tempo than you would hear on flute. Some of the recordings I’ve tracked down on Spotify present this Scherzo as an Allegretto, to be sure, but the label on Rampal’s vinyl has said Presto for upwards of a half century. It wasn’t just a madcap romp in Ehnes’s hands, for there are tender moments amid the frenzy with wicked interjections, and Weiss was also very impressive here, responding assertively right up to the movement’s abrupt conclusion. Ehnes showcased the extra tenderness of this violin version most emphatically in the lovely Andante, dramatically tamping down the pulse of the piece and finding sensuous allure in the sinuous melody. The concluding Allegro con brio was brimful of triumphal zest, bursting with energy and virtuosity. Even the contemplative second theme built to a proud passion.
The diminutive suffix for Kernis’s Sonatine, Ehnes revealed, came from the composer’s mischievous determination to rhyme his title with his daughter’s name, Delphine. As the kaleidoscopic markings of the opening movement prove – including Oracle, Larkspur, and Delphinium – the composer was keenly aware of the geographic, mythic, and botanical associations with that name. Additional markings in that movement, Cetacea and Dolphinic Syncopation, hint at the probability that the girl has acquired an aquatic nickname at home or in the schoolyard. Although there is a Delicato embedded among the tempo markings, “Oracle” is anything but delicate – or feminine – at the outset, moving from fury to foreboding with enough energy to fray the horsehair on Ehnes’s bow. An ominous, somewhat uncomfortable lullaby followed a complete stop. Eventually, we circled back to tempestuous drama, capped with a vicious pizzicato.
The middle movement, “Shaded Blue,” was intimate, personal, and once again allusive. Taking his cue from Delphine’s tendency to dye her hair blue, Kernis gave this slow movement a sad opening, lightly textured with the blues. Some of the slower, quieter passages were downright eerie and despondent, building to anguished shrieks before descending to another depression that distilled into a long, sustained harmonic note – almost as memorable an ending as the pizzicato had been. Once again, the concluding movement’s title had personal and musical connotations. “Catch That Train!” recalls the composer’s anxiety the first time he and his wife allowed Delphine and her twin brother to ride the New York subway by themselves – using the kind of train rhythms common to bluegrass and boogie-woogie. Of course, it was Weiss at the keyboard who was most propulsive in taking the musical train from a standstill to full steam. But if Weiss was the rhythm of the rails, then Ehnes was surely the train whistle, with wailing double bowing and fadeaway glissandos. Ehnes also drew a hefty share of the rhythm, fiddling furiously at times in bluegrass mode and even strumming for a while and producing a hollow banjo sound. No, Kernis’s “Train” wasn’t the most New York in spirit, but it was definitely rousing and entertaining.
For their closer, Ehnes and Weiss presented the most often recorded piece on their program, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, ruefully nicknamed “The Hippogriff Sonata” by the composer when a mere human violinist couldn’t cope with its technical challenges at the 1885 premiere. A special alertness is necessary to review the piece, for two of the three divisions between movements occur without a pause. Ehnes and Heifetz are among the heavyweights who have tackled the “Hippogriff” in the recording studio, a roster that also includes Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham, Pinchas Zukerman, and Salvatore Accardo. Listening to the Ehnes recording with Wendy Chen in the wake of this explosive performance, I found that Weiss was an edgier partner, drawing more snap and ferocity from Ehnes, making for more excitement in the majestic Allegro agitato. After that opening, Weiss subordinated himself more than Chen did in the Adagio, mixing more of an accompanist’s role into his reading, where Chen maintained more autonomy.
Chen’s approach yielded sweeter, happier results in the pivotal Allegretto moderato, whereas Weiss was more impish, moody, and modern. Rounding into the beehive buzz of the Allegro molto finale, Weiss offered more puckish punctuation amid Ehnes’s awesome cascade, working into a more feverish mode when the violin began floating above in more of a legato. There was more intricacy to the interplay in the middle of this movement as Weiss and Ehnes handed over dominance to each other. Then the ending built and built and built, each flurry from Ehnes delivered with more fire and fury than the last, Weiss prodding him on with more intensity, quicker pace, to a final explosion.
To be sure, the audio engineering by Christopher Scully-Thurston captured the sound of this concert with studio-level clarity; and filming by John Laww and Saleem Rehsamwala, edited by Rehsamwala, was beautifully conceived, varied but never gimmicky. What was perhaps most memorable and encouraging, however, was that Kernis proved he belonged in this company of titans as much as Ehnes and Weiss. Another Grammy nomination likely awaits the Kernis-Ehnes team when a recording is released.