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Fearless Youth

April 22, 2008

The Crowden Music Center's [email protected] concert series is by now a popular feature of the North Berkeley classical music scene, to judge by the eager audiences I see whenever I attend. One program a season goes to a Crowden School alumnus, and last Sunday that guest was Owen Dalby, now through with his studies at Yale and teamed up with fellow Yalie Alexander Rabin in a violin–piano duo.
The last time I heard Dalby play was four years ago, when he was a poetic but rather tentative soloist with the Oakland East Bay Symphony in Mendelssohn’s E-minor Concerto. Since then, to judge by Sunday's short but demanding recital, he has developed into a fearless and inquisitive violinist.

The program was odd but satisfying, featuring Mozart's little E-Minor Sonata (K. 304), John Adams' Road Movies (1995), and, after a brief intermission, Bartók's mammoth Violin Sonata No. 1, Sz. 75. At first, or even second, glance, the works don't have much in common. Dalby, introducing the Bartók, characterized their juxtaposition almost as the setup of a joke (“So these three pieces walk into a bar, and ...”), finally suggesting that the Bartók represents a kind of via media between the other two.

But who needs to rationalize this sort of program? My first thought was, “Wow, cool,” and my second was that Dalby obviously has a pretty taste for challenges. You don't often see a player packing such a variety of difficulties into an hour-long selection of music.
Mister In-Between
The Mozart came off least well. It is a tricky thing, this slight two-movement sonata, the only work Mozart ever completed in the key of E minor. Dalby and Rabin seemed uncertain how to place it stylistically; there was neither the long line of an old-fashioned “modern” performance nor the mercurial rhetoric you might expect from a “period” violinist.

Dalby, whose bio mentions extensive experience playing Baroque violin, favored the kind of detached bowing that breaks up the old-style seamless legato but without putting anything particularly compelling in its place. Dynamics and vibrato were both constrained. This wasn't a thoughtless performance or an underinflected one — there was plenty of detail in both parts. But it seemed stylistically ill at ease, more adept at avoiding this or that pitfall than at declaring its own point of view.

There was, too, some surprising technical squirreliness — notes not quite on pitch, bowstrokes not begun quite cleanly, and the like. On the other hand, the golden dolce playing I remember from Dalby's Mendelssohn Concerto is alive and well. The E-major trio section of the second movement was the performance's high point, simple and luminous.

Road Movies, a taut, three-movement dynamo of a mini-sonata in classic Adams style, was something else again. The outer movements are two glittering toccatas, with the moto perpetuo component mostly in the violin in the fiddling-tinged third movement (headed “40% Swing”), but mainly in the piano in the opening one.

In both there's the rhythmic stutter, a kind of maddeningly irregular out-of-kilter-ness, that is one of Adams' signature discoveries. To bring it off perfectly demands almost inhuman rhythmic certitude, the nerve to hit the rhythmically displaced notes with the same confidence and swagger as the ones whose pattern they interrupt. Dalby and Rabin didn't have complete command of Adams' intricate machinery — a gear slipped here and there, once badly enough to force them to stop and restart — but through most of the performance they carried off the impression that they did, which is the one indispensable quality in making this music work.
Success on the Edge
The piece brought out a new Dalby, one fierce of bowing, secure of pitch, and commanding of tone. (And a new Rabin, for that matter: Gracious in the Mozart, he whirred and clattered through Adams' glittering textures with aplomb.)

In the middle movement, an obsessive yet wayward meditation on a handful of pitches, the violin's G string is tuned down a whole step to F. Dalby's string refused to stay put, drifting inexorably sharpward despite his several attempts to tweak it back down, so that the intended bittersweet clash between it and the F-sharp an octave up was more bitter than sweet.

If the Adams was boldly played, the Bartók was something more than that. The sonata, written for the great Hungarian violinist Jelly D'Arányi (also the first performer of Ravel's Tzigane), is in three big, dauntingly heterogeneous movements, totaling more than half an hour altogether. It is one of those starkly unreasonable masterpieces whose devotees tend to be few, fervent, and exceptionally accomplished. (The last one of note was Midori, who made it the centerpiece of her first recording in about a decade last year.) You're unlikely to hear such pieces played often. But when you do run across them, you generally find them played with unusual security, and nearly always with extraordinary intensity.

So it was here. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Dalby and Rabin had formed their prizewinning duo in order to play this work. The performance was ferocious and tender and eerie, fiercely controlled and also impetuous. Any suggestions of insecurity or uncertainty in the playing that the rest of the program might have raised were ruthlessly rebuffed here. Technically speaking, both players had their hands full, but those hands kept an iron grip.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.