Last night the San Francisco Symphony presented a recital by violinist Hilary Hahn in Davies Symphony Hall as part of the Great Performers Series. Hahn performed both solo and with piano accompaniment provided by Cory Smythe. The second half of the program provided the primary “action” for the evening, coupling Aaron Copland’s 1942 sonata for violin and piano with two works commissioned by Hahn, followed by an encore of an “honorable mention” entry in the competition for the final composition in Hahn’s 27 Pieces project, conceived to provide a new repertoire of encores for the 21st century. The first half resided entirely in the eighteenth century with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1005 solo violin sonata in C major and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 379 sonata in G major.
Copland was the darling of those who wanted to embrace modernism with an American accent for much of the twentieth century. However, by the time the century drew to a close, modernism had advanced far beyond Copland’s turf; and these days his music receives far less attention (although Michael Tilson Thomas continues to be one of his champions). Last night Hahn proved to be a first-rate advocate for Copland’s chamber music (which tended to be neglected during his lifetime in favor of his “distinctively American” orchestral writing). The music can be described as abstract; but that label did not deter Hahn from endowing her performance with richly expressive rhetoric, supported admirably by Smythe’s piano work every step of the way. This is music that definitely deserves more attention, particularly now that audiences are far more inclined to go to chamber music recitals than they were half a century ago.
The 27 Pieces project was represented by the final work on the program, Tina Davidson’s “Blue Curve of the Earth.” Scored for violin and piano, this amounts to a relatively brief study in sonority in which the composer skillfully exploits “ambiguity of the source.” In other words the listener cannot always discern by sound alone which sources come from violin and which come from the piano. (Looking at the musicians clearly helps resolve any ambiguity.) The title suggests that this was “environment-inspired” music; but the brief program note by Scott Foglesong said nothing to explain that title. The listener could just as easily accept the piece as an étude in sonority, just as Copland’s sonata could be approached as a study in “American rhetoric;” and both Hahn and Smythe brought a clarity to Davidson’s score that made the music thoroughly approachable without giving the title very much thought. Equally effective in this regard was the “honorable mention” composition, “Catch,” by Aaron Severini, a lively bundle of manic energy that could not have made for a better encore (which was, of course, the composer’s intention).
The second half of the program began with a work-in-progress by another 27 Pieces composer, Antón García Abril. Abril is currently writing a set of six solo violin partitas for Hahn, and last night she performed the first of them. This project probably emerged from the legacy of the six solo violin compositions by Bach, three of which were partitas and the other three sonatas. In 1923 Eugène Ysaÿe undertook a similar exercise, composing a set of six solo violin sonatas, his Opus 27. It is important to note that none of these sonatas followed Bach’s conception of form. This is just as well; by 1923 there were no end of different approaches to what a sonata was and how it should be structured. Ysaÿe clearly felt no need to draw upon past architectural foundations, and his results were no less impressive for that decision.
Presumably, Abril has a similar awareness of Bach’s legacy. While “one is not a statistic,” it would appear that, like Ysaÿe, he is appropriating the label without any of the structural associations from the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, when one is presenting music to an audience for the first time and the piece happens to have multiple movements, listeners tend to benefit from being informed as to how many movements there are. This information was not provided, nor did the program book say much of substance about Abril’s project. The result was a “first contact” experience with what appeared to be a two-movement composition, informed by almost no expectations other than instrumentation and the strong likelihood that this would not be an exercise in “Bach nostalgia.”
Once again the noun “étude” may best serve what was performed. Abril displayed a keen interest in the many different techniques through which the violin could yield a diverse palette of sonorities. Hahn seemed to be completely at ease with all of the demands that Abril imposed on her. This allowed the listener to almost revel in that diversity of sonorities without ever feeling too much concern about whether or not there was some overarching structural framework. Hahn was so comfortable with Abril’s style as a composer that, for all anyone on audience side could tell, he may have been documenting his own stream of consciousness.
That sense of performing ease was far less evident where Bach’s solo violin sonata was concerned. In this case Hahn seemed so intently focused on technical demands that she lost track of where the music was. This was evident from the very opening Adagio, in which she seemed more occupied with getting all of the chords right (particularly those with four notes) to the point where she lost touch with the flow of the individual lines of counterpoint. Things got worse in the following fugue (the longest of the fugue movements in Bach’s solo violin collection), where any of the key structural elements of fugue, particularly the stretto entries, got lost in what felt like a battle to assign every note its proper place. Only the dance-like Allegro assai of the final movement seemed to have any sense of spirit that could rise above the notes themselves.
The Mozart sonata that opened the evening did not fare any better. K. 379 was composed in 1781 and is as adventurous as it is mature. One also gets the sense that it set the bar for the violin sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, since, for all intents and purposes, it is a sonata for “piano and obbligato violin,” the wording used on Beethoven’s title pages. It is easy to imagine Mozart at the keyboard for K. 379 having the time of his life with so many intricate passages that seem to receive little more than nods of appreciation from the violin part.
Unfortunately, Smythe never managed to summon up the spirit that Mozart probably brought to this keyboard music. He could let the mood swing through wild changes in dynamic level (sometimes drowning out Hahn); but it never seemed to occur to him that the prevailing rhetoric in this sonata could have been wit, even when the Allegro shifts the key abruptly into G minor. Smythe is apparently the “core pianist” for the International Contemporary Ensemble, which, as observed on my national site, seems to construe “contemporary” in terms of “being hip.” This may have blinded Smythe to the possibility that Mozart was pretty damned hip for his own day and deserved to be given a performance that treated him as such.