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Free but Frazzled

April 24, 2007

F-A-E, or Froh Aber Einsam (Free but lonely), was the motto of the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), who collaborated with both Schumann and Brahms. The two composers wrote a pair of violin-piano pieces for the virtuoso, based on the notes of the initials F-A-E. On Sunday evening, on the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers Series, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and piano accompanist Anne-Marie McDermott played the two uncommonly heard F-A-E movements (Schumann's Intermezzo and Brahms' Scherzo).
These were preceded by three more commonly performed, yet historically related, workhorses of violin recitals: Brahms' Violin Sonatas No. 1 in G Major and No. 2 in A Major, and Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major. It is always pleasing to see a well-thought-out program with a running theme, rather than a random variety show.

Salerno-Sonnenberg's sound is certainly unique and nonconformist. She's never afraid to be rough, she has the ability to play out a long melody with beautiful sound, and her finger and bow technique is not to be doubted. Yet the best and most distinguishing aspect of her playing lay in the soft sections. At times she was able to fill the cavernous space of Davies Symphony Hall with only a captivating and penetrating stage whisper. This was immediately evident in the first movement of the Beethoven and was a positive feature throughout her recital.

Although this praise is richly deserved, something still seemed missing from her overall performance. Joachim's "Free but lonely" theme worked well with the program, but as a whole "Free but frazzled" was more like it. In her black and white striped pants, the artist looked as if she had just gained her freedom by escaping from Alcatraz. Nevertheless, while her performance possessed an intriguing sense of artistic liberty, at the same time a certain absence of concentration prevailed.
Jittery and Unfocused
From their body language, to their communication one with another, to even their phrasing and expression, the duo lacked earnestness. Salerno-Sonnenberg looked jittery, and maybe even nervous. She would twirl her instrument in between pieces, check her strings loudly and often, twitch noticeably, or give perplexing stares at the audience now and then. The effect of these stage mannerisms was discomforting. More important, she seldom used the gorgeous sound that, on occasion, she proved that she could still produce. Phrases would undulate in and out of fervor and apathy. The musicality was unfocused.

McDermott seemed content in her background role of accompanist, despite having to dispatch the heavily involved piano parts composed by Brahms and Beethoven. All the notes were there (except perhaps some of those crazy figurations in the Brahms), and they spoke clearly enough. But rarely did the piano challenge the violin's authority — seldom did it take on an individualistic personality.

True, Davies Symphony Hall, with more than 2,700 seats, is far from an ideal venue for a violin recital. It is the best hall in the Bay Area for a symphony concert, but for chamber music it is simply too big. Salerno-Sonnenberg worked valiantly to keep her lovely pianissimo sound afloat, but she struggled in the forte sections. Her violin never quite resonated, and failed to envelope the listeners in sound. On occasion, a flame of sound would catch something, but the overall execution was inconsistent.

Free, maybe, but somewhat puzzling.

Be'eri Moalem ( is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.

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