There are many violinists abroad in the land and, thanks to superior training offered by American conservatories, some of them are excellent. Truly great ones, however, don't exactly grow on trees.
In each generation, a few artists come to be recognized as supreme practitioners in their chosen fields. In his prime, Rostropovich was justly celebrated as The Cellist, despite the presence of a crowd of hotshot youngsters who came up, nipping at his heels. In my formative years, David Oistrakh was The Violinist, despite the fact that he had even more competition than Rostropovich. Now, things have changed a bit. We have fiddlers who work the talk-show circuits as much as concert rooms. We have stars and starlets who are made in the studio-whether they can deliver the goods in the flesh may be debated. We have crossover types who think they can be all things to all people. And we have artists like Leila Josefowicz, who is at once still young, ravishingly beautiful, and at the top of her playing game. Josefowicz visited Raleigh for a Great Artists Series recital on the afternoon of September 30, accompanied by John Novacek, whose accomplishments as a pianist parallel the violinist's. Together they dazzled a smallish crowd that grew increasingly ecstatic as the program unfolded.
It was too warm in Fletcher Opera Theater, making one wonder if the spanking new computer-driven heating-&-air-conditioning system is already on the fritz; the temperature in the hall must have been twenty degrees higher than in the frigid lobby. That system made its customary noise, still audible in the upper reaches of the balcony, but on this occasion it was not as noticeable as some loud snoring from what may have been the only bored person in the room.
The program began with the familiar six-movement Suite populaire espagnole, based on Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs. These were rearranged and transcribed - Seguidilla murciana is omitted - by Kochanski, whose name appeared nowhere in the program. Although the arrangements turn up fairly often, the originals are worth hearing, and they are best heard in one of two historic recordings - by Maria Barrientos, with the composer at the piano, or by Conchita Supervia, accompanied by Frank Marshall. The visitors played these things beautifully, and they were admirably set off by the hall, in which one can (literally) hear a pin drop. Heretofore few guest artists would have dared attempt such wide dynamic ranges. Josefowicz is a fireball, but her almost inaudible playing in the softest sections set her apart-by miles and miles-from the rest of the pack.
There was more of the same in the next offering in this international program. On the heels of the previous evening's performance of part of one of Prokofiev's Sonatas by artists of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, one might wonder what's in the programming air, but the Great Artists Series reading of Shostakovich's Op. 134 made such musings irrelevant, for this was a performance for the ages. We mentioned Oistrakh at the outset; he played in Raleigh 39 years ago, and the memory of that concert lingers (in part because it was at the height of the Cuban missile crisis). The September 30 rendition of the 1968 Sonata may rank with that earlier appearance by a comparably great fiddler. It was that compelling.
A fairly short work by Erkki-Sven Tüür represented the visitor's only nod to recent music; Conversio, for violin and piano, is a minimalist kind of thing, and it received a committed performance. Someone observed however that mainliners are in trouble when the dots on the page look like squiggles or graphs, instead of conventional notes, or when the page turner (Michele Hile, of the Raleigh Oratorio Society, on this occasion) comes onstage with a big piece of cardboard onto which the music has been pasted. The performance had been meticulously prepared and seemed as ideally balanced as the rest of the show, but it will take more than one hearing to get the music's point(s).
There was no problem getting the last number on the formal program - or the encore, for that matter. The recital ended with Grieg's Third Sonata, the famous one that was recorded by Kreisler and Rachmaninoff. Josefowicz and Novacek treated it more aggressively but her playing was colored by some wonderful touches that bespoke her familiarity with and appreciation of the style and heritage of its earliest performers. The place erupted in applause that was rewarded with "Full Stride Ahead," a saucy bit of fluff in ragtime style concocted by the pianist himself. It sent the crowd away on a high American note. Bravo!
In one respect only, the NC Symphony's GAS doesn't meet expectations - the printed programs are bare-bones and, in this case, included neither notes on the music nor the years of the compositions. Tüür's hardly a household name; the composer was born in 1959 but is virtually unknown here. A note on his work or a word or two from the platform from either of the performers would have helped. Come to think of it, there wasn't a word about Novacek in the program, either.