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Fancy hors d’oeuvres were spread around the L-shaped lobby of Robinson Hall at UNC Charlotte, where a new portrait of Anne R. Belk was unveiled outside the theater bearing her name. Perhaps all those trustees and donors milling around in fancy dress were the reason why the newly appointed Belk Distinguished Professor of Music, violinist David Russell, jettisoned the Stravinsky piece promised in the University’s season brochure and began his Inaugural Recital instead with a work by Vivaldi. Tasty irony if you’re familiar with Stravinsky’s famed put-down of the Red Priest.
Less than two weeks earlier, at another Belk Theater in downtown Charlotte, the prospect of sitting through Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony cut a huge swath through an audience that, before its mass intermission exodus, had enjoyed a fine performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto with soloist Karen Gomyo. So if Russell’s switch in programming was precautionary, it was also prudent.
The Sonata in D, arranged for violin and piano by Ottorino Respighi, had that familiar Vivaldian expectation in its opening Moderato, with Russell lavishing a ripe romantic tone and a throbbing vibrato on the melody while navigating the tempo with a beguiling looseness that enhanced the fantasia’s atmosphere. But hopes that the ensuing Allegro would deliver that familiar frisson we experience in The Four Seasons, where dreamy preludes are dispelled by onrushing arpeggios, were quashed when Russell fussed with his score between movements – reinforcing my suspicion that the Vivaldi was a last-minute substitution.
Along with a more judicious use of vibrato, Russell applied a thinner, more conventional tone to the Largo, and he captured the dancing spirit of Vivace with a charming lilt. There wasn’t much for UNC Chapel Hill pianist Wonmin Kim to contribute in the background, and she never marred the tapestry.
The real test for Kim, and the sound quality of the Belk, came immediately afterwards in the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 2 in A. Centered in the Belk’s acoustic shell, the Bösendorfer piano projected little heft from its bass, and a trace of murkiness haunted the treble. Nor would it be honest to call Kim’s touch at the keyboard, in the opening Allegro Amabile, either bold or exquisite. Russell was undeterred by the tentative accompaniment. Although there were dry patches where we needed to hear more tenderness, Russell caught the sway of the 3/8 tempo with his sweet tone and zestfully attacked the passionate passages.
In the sonata’s middle movement, the duo elegantly conveyed the arc of the Andante-Vivace-Andante structure. Russell’s pizzicatos perked up the second Vivace section, and his elegiac double-bowing, when the movement seemed to be fading out, led impressively to the sped-up codetta. Moving on to the concluding Allegretto, conceptualization became curiously nebulous and Kim’s accompaniment, particularly inchoate where the piano drifts into chromaticism. When the music grew more agitated, striving toward its resolute conclusion, the duo responded ardently, nicely capturing the dialectic.
Like the Vivaldi, the Brahms hadn’t been mentioned in the pre-concert publicity. It may also have been a late substitution, since a promised Schubert piece went the way of the Stravinsky. Whatever the reason, Russell appeared more genial and relaxed during the second half of the concert, which culminated with the only composer that had actually been named beforehand, George Gershwin, in a Porgy and Bess suite arranged by the great Heifetz.
The brilliancies of this crowd-pleasing musical smorgasbord weren’t totally in the hands of the violinist. Kim drew a powerful intro in “My Man’s Gone Now,” contrasting effectively with Russell’s gentle entry, embroidered with beguiling double-stops and delicate harmonics. Russell relished the bulk of the bravura, which included stratospheric double-stopping in the second chorus of “Summertime,” a profusion of trills in “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” and silvery harmonics in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” – all of which were upstaged by the double-stopped harmonics at the end of a rhapsodic “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” The only spot where Russell faltered was in the wicked glissandi just before the fine ending of “Tempo di Blues,” an odd alias for a series of variations on “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.”
Russell and Kim were at their best in the more adventurous repertoire they had presented right after intermission. Each of the Three Pieces for Violin and Piano by Amy Beach had a distinctive sound all its own, staking out its own musical corner of the early 20th Century. “Invocation” reminded me of "The Lark Ascending" with its hieratic flutterings, “La Captive” had an anguished Russell entrance over a sad Kim intro, and “Berceuse” had a dancing gait, in the vein of Debussy, that Russell excels at. Wilder still were the unpredictable mood shifts of Charles Ives’s Violin Sonata No. 4: restless chromaticism in the piano entry, a high eerie layering on of the violin, and increasing agitation and energy that subside into a meditative interlude – pierced by a piano rant that sparked Kim’s best playing of the evening. Unfortunately, they only played the Largo-Allegro-Largo Cantabile second movement. I wanted to hear more.
*We are pleased to welcome our MCANA colleague Perry Tannenbaum to the pages of CVNC. He has covered the performing arts in the Charlotte area since 1987 for Creative Loafing. He is also a frequent contributor to American Record Guide, Dance International, TheaterMania, and JazzTimes.