Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ray Chen & Julio Elizalde: Take a Break from Winter

Had enough winter? Me, too. But here's Ray Chen, playing the 2nd Movement from Antonio Vivaldi's “Winter.” Maybe this will help us through the next visit of the Dreaded Polar Vortex.

Ray Chen
Wednesday night at 8pm, violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julio Elizalde perform at Whitaker Center with Market Square Concerts' February program. It will include a Mozart sonata Chen recently recorded with Christoph Eschenbach (part of his third recording for SONY, this one with Mozart's 3rd & 4th Violin Concertos and the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra) – some shorter works by Pablo de Sarasate including the ever-popular Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) and what is easily the greatest of Beethoven's Violin Sonatas and therefore one of the greatest violin sonatas in the repertoire, the one known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata.

This is nearly the same program Chen will perform in April at Paris' legendary concert hall, the Salle Gaveau.

Maxim Vengerov, one of the best-known Russian violinists of the day (hard to believe he turns 40 this year), recently described Chen as 'a very pure musician with great qualities such as a beautiful youthful tone, vitality and lightness. He has all the skills of a truly musical interpreter.'

Daniel Kepl, reviewing a performance last October for CASA, wrote “With the remarkably sensitive collaboration of pianist Julio Elizalde, whose playing through the evening was thoroughly supportive, Chen opened his program with Mozart, the Sonata in A Major, K.305. An exquisitely delicate performance from both artists highlighted the work's compositional perfection. Later in the program, Chen's tastefully idiosyncratic interpretation of Bach's solo Partita No. 3 in E Major bathed the audience once again in his glorious sound and made clear Chen's love for his instrument and its capacity to mesmerize.

“Three dazzlingly virtuosic Sarasate show-pieces performed perfectly by Chen and Elizalde... would have been enough to satisfy.” For this performance in Santa Barbara, they included the Prokofiev 2nd Sonata rather than Beethoven's Kreutzer.

Not only great music, you can also hear Chen play a 1702 Stradivarius violin, the one known as the “Lord Newlands” (see left).

And he's also a model for Giorgio Armani, so not only will he sound well, playing a Strad on loan from the Nippon Foundation, he'll look good, too.

Here, he plays Paganini's 21st Caprice as an encore after a concert with the Israel Philharmonic:

In 2009, at the age of 20, he won the Queen Elisabeth (of Belgium) Competition, one of the most prestigious and difficult music competitions in the world. This performance of the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto is from the final round of the competition:

Chen talks about his iPad music stand with its hand-free page-turner (placed on the floor, you press a pedal with a foot to turn the digital page forward or backward) – in addition to saving a lot of time and not having to worry about pesky, badly-placed page turns, he doesn't have to carry as much 'physical' music (bricks-and-mortar sheet music) plus it lets him buy more books when he's touring.

Julio Elizalde, Chen's collaborator in this performance, has been praised for his "cat-like ease" at the keyboard by the New York Times and is gaining wide-spread recognition across the country for his "musical depth and creative insight." In addition to Chen, he has also performed with violinists like Pamela Frank and Robert Mann as well baritone William Sharp. He made his concerto debut playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 with the Juilliard Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall.

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The Mozart Sonata, part of a half-dozen set written during the summer of 1778 in Paris, is in two movements rather than the more traditional three. The opening is one of Mozart's happier concoctions and the second movement is one of his more soul-searching set of variations.

Here are Gil and Orli Shaham in this performance of the Sonata in A Major, K.305:

This trip to Paris was one of Mozart's many “tours” not just to concertize but to locate a good position in the wider music world – this, in the day when an appointment as a court musician was the only way for a professional musician to earn a secure living. So the idea was to perform but also write, perform and publish music to get noticed. Unfortunately, Mozart had no business sense – his father had been his agent, but since he was unable to get away from his own job as a musician at the Archbishop of Salzburg's court, his mother went along primarily as chaperone. Not only did the experience in Paris not result in anything remotely successful, his mother also died in July during their stay, around the time these six sonatas were composed.

Listening to this music, you would hardly know what was going on in Mozart's life at the time. It says a great deal for being able to compartmentalize.

Not much is known about Anna Maria Mozart, the composer's mother. His father, Leopold, of course, gets the lion's share of the attention, for better or worse, but certainly she must have had something to do with who Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart became, don't you think?

I always recommend this novel – a fictional biography of Mozart's mother – “Stitches in Air” by Liane Ellison Norman. You can read about it at my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

Mozart was a violinist and pianist as well as a composer and this sonata, written when he was 22, pays more attention to the piano part that was usually given to an “accompanist,” making the keyboard player more of a collaborator.

This became especially important to Beethoven who, though he played the violin, was famous as a pianist in the early part of his career. You can read more about his “Kreutzer” Sonata in a subsequent post, here.

A century after Mozart wrote the Sonata K.305, one of the great violin virtuosos of the 19th Century, Pablo de Sarasate, composed what is easily his most enduring showcase (if not his masterpiece), Zigeunerweisen, which makes considerable hay out of the craze for Hungarian Gypsy music made popular by the rhapsodies of the Hungarian-born Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms' dances. Here, the focus is entirely on the violinist and the responsibility of the pianist, largely unnoticed, is primarily to keep up with the soloist.

Once again, a performance with Gil Shaham recorded in Japan in 2007 with, in this video posting on You-Tube, a typically uncredited pianist:

In addition to season sponsor Capitol Blue Cross, this particular concert is also made possible by Martin and Lucy Murray who, in addition to their "real" lives (Lucy well known to Market Square Concerts audiences as its founder and long-time director, program annotator and frequent page-turner), are both avid amateur musicians, and have been known to enjoy Mozart's sonatas among their music-making. It's wonderful they can also bring this love of music for Harrisburg audiences to enjoy.

- Dick Strawser

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