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Second Fiddles?

August 14, 2004

Bruno Eicher

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By Lisa Hirsch

One would think that two hours would allow enough time for the fifty-mile drive from Oakland to Silverado Vineyards, in Napa. Most of the time, one would be right, but not on Saturday afternoon, when miserable traffic from Berkeley north to the Carquinez Bridge turned the trip into a two-hour-and-twenty-minute horror. Consequently, I arrived at the concert, entitled “Playing Second Fiddle,” very frustrated and too late to hear much of the Beethoven Piano Trio in c minor, Op. 1, No. 3. What I heard of the performance was crisply played and enticing. Pianist Seth Knopp and cellist Kari Jane Docter participated elsewhere on the program, though it was violinist Dawn Harms's only appearance of the day.

The frustration passed quickly in the beautiful surroundings, especially when Knoop reappeared with violinist Bruno Eicher for the Prokofiev Violin Sonata No. 1 in f minor, Op. 80. The wood-and-stucco Silverado Room seats only 170, so that audience members can easily see and hear the performers. It's a marvelous place for chamber music; small musical gestures are audible without strain, and no exaggeration is necessary to reach the audience or get its attention.

The sonata took Prokofiev some eight years to compose, from 1938 to 1946. It is a tightly unified work, so concentrated and with so many thematic connections that it might have come together in a month. A running violin figure from the first movement recurs very near the end of the fourth. In between, deep, brooding piano figures and frequent unisons between the piano and violin alternate with sections where the piano and violin toss parts of a single theme back and forth in a kind of implied counterpoint. The violin has plenty of lyrical phrases, especially in the delicate and mysterious third movement, which is almost French in texture. That movement dies away quietly into nothingness, and Eicher and Knopp did this so magically that the movement might still be going on. The last, more insistent, movement had more of the octave/unison figures, and sometimes sounded like a balalaika orchestra. Eicher and Knopp gave it a terrific performance, passionate, well-balance, beautifully tuned, and holding nothing back. They earned a standing ovation, and I would have been happy to hear every note of the piece again, if only a whole work could be encored.

Violaine Melancon, Seth Knopp,
Kari Docter, Michael Adams

Anton“n Dvorák wrote a great deal of beautiful music during his career, but he doesn't get the respect among scholars that Brahms, Wagner, and or even his countryman Janácek get. The Sextet for Strings, Op. 48, written around the same time as the ever-popular Slavonic Dances, might provide some clues as to why. The middle movements are based on Czech dances and sound as if they could be outtakes from the Slavonic Dances. In at least two of the four movements, he uses one of his trademarks, shifting a chord from major to minor as a way to launch in a new harmonic direction. This is ear-catching, but after you've heard it in nearly every work by a particular composer, it starts to sound like a trick or a tic. The third movement, a furiant, alternates between exquisite delicacy and peasant vigor. The last movement is a theme and variations; the theme doesn't have the kind of strong profile that makes for a really successful set of variations. A few were striking, nonetheless, including a movement that put the first cello front and center, framed by the upper strings and second cello, and the beautiful cascades of the preceding variation. The piece finally caught fire toward the end and finished in a surprisingly dramatic rush.

The players were Violaine Melançon and Daria Adams, violin; Michael Adams and Lesley Robertson, viola; Christopher Costanza and Kari Jane Docter, cello. Michael Adams (festival music director along with Daria Adams) talked briefly about the work before the performance and noted that five of the six musicians hadn't played the piece before. The performance was assured and thoroughly professional, with plenty of variety. It would have benefited from wilder and less refined playing in the more vigorous sections of the piece, and perhaps with a more idiomatic sense its rhythmic life, things that will doubtless come when each player has lived longer with the sextet.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2004 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved