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If you're driving westward into the mountains for the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, you must take US-64 for the last leg of the trip unless you loop up toward Asheville or dip down into South Carolina. With a concert up in Brevard the previous evening, the SC option was off the table. So my wife Sue and I headed out to Cashiers on Saturday afternoon all primed to enjoy the "Musical Fireworks" concert with violinist David Coucheron and his younger sibling, pianist Julie Coucheron. Unfortunately, the same restrictions apply when you’re leaving Cashiers, even to trucks and vans, and a mammoth Mayflower moving van – larger than you would think prudent for a twisty mountain road – jackknifed on a turn ahead of us when our GPS told us we were 27 minutes from our destination. So instead of arriving at the Community Library 21 minutes early, we edged our way toward a couple of empty seats about 13 minutes late. As a result, we only heard the last four minutes or so of Tomaso Antonio Vitali's Chaconne in G minor, a rather challenging start to a concert that would also include Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 2 and Saint-Saëns' Violin Sonata No. 1.
It would have been fascinating to hear one of the Coucherons introduce the Vitali piece, since it was almost certainly not written by Vitali – or any other Baroque composer, so wild are the key changes. Nor was the accompaniment written for keyboard. The original composition was for violin and continuo, with Jascha Heifitz recording the most elaborate adaptation by Respighi (an orchestration for violin, organ, and strings) until Sarah Chang came along with a magnificent new version in the 1990s, even more lushly accompanied. While I arrived too late to hear the solemn opening, where the Vitali Chaconne most resembles the Bach, what I did hear allowed me to quickly size up the musicians and the space. The room at the Cashiers Library was built as a lecture hall rather than a performance space, wider than it is deep, with a seating capacity of 110 – movable chairs arranged on a level surface. Performers on the smallish stage are framed in wood paneling along the upstage wall and the wings, and the house piano is an attractive baby grand.
Although I was able to track down a recording of Chaconne that sounded appreciably worse, the Cashiers chamber cannot be described as favorable to either musician. The piano, not really at the forefront here, lacked crispness and sparkle, while the violin sounded so thin and distant that, at first, I had my doubts about David's intonation. When he came to the virtuosic climax with its double-bowing challenges, I was greatly reassured. What I heard was enough to make me wish to explore a piece I'd never heard or known about before, a benefit that ought to be part of orchestral concerts more often – and a chief joy of many chamber music recitals. I’m guessing that David offered the opening introduction for it was Julie who stepped forth to introduce the Grieg. More memorable was her explanation of why she was shoeless. Brother David had apparently banned the prized new heels when he heard the sounds they emitted.
Written in his early 20s just after his marriage, Grieg's second violin sonata is youthfully buoyant, turbulent, and melodic, teeming with ideas. David seemed less committed to the opening Lento doloroso section of the opening movement than to the Allegro vivace section interlaced with it. Ends of phrases were often more casual than dolorous and he never caught the eddying sweep of emotion in the rhythm. Acclimating to the thin timbre of the violin, I took more pleasure when the violinist reached the advertised fireworks. Once again, virtuosity shone forth and there was far more spontaneous spirit to the challenging passages than in the expressive moments. Even in the vivace episodes, there wasn't any of the ferocity in David's attack that can make this music truly gripping. Happily, the next movements grew better and better. David's deepest commitment was still devoted to the most turbulent passages of the Allegretto tranquillo, but he raised his level enough so that the tranquil and turbulent episodes began to mesh, with a delicate sublimity as this middle movement ended. Intensity rose even higher in the concluding Allegro animato, with Julie finally contributing to the excitement at the keyboard as the pacing grew more urgent.
With unusual charm and candor, David opened up to the audience about the most daunting aspect of preforming the Saint-Saëns: the page turning! Getting the pages of the score put together just right so that he could perform smoothly without assistance apparently involved extensive calculation, some tense experimentation, and a pilgrimage to Kinko's. It quickly became apparent that this dedication had been lavished on a piece that the Coucherons had a warm affinity for. From the opening bars, David demonstrated his keen sense of the ebb and flow that distinguishes the Allegro agitato, and Julie began to play with a crispness and authority that made me wish she had a grander piano in a bigger hall. She also contributed deftly to the dialogue of the Adagio movement, differentiating between iterations of the various impressionistic runs as the violin hovered above, occasionally gathering into spasms of sleepy or slightly agitated expression. Plenty of genial repetitions greeted us in the second pairing of movements, an Allegro moderato and the concluding Allegro molto, with David supplying most of the deft differentiation. The finale began much like the previous Allegro, only far faster, with an explosive display of ricochet bowing that signaled the most-sustained fireworks on the program. When the violin soared off the first outburst of bravura bowing, the effect was exhilarating. The younger sibling fully entered the fray as a new burst of ricochets triggered the climax. Julie matched David note for note, and when he increased the frenzy with a run of double bowing, she further augmented the excitement, rapidly pounding out chords.
The fun had clearly begun, and it continued with a parting showpiece, Pablo de Sarasate's Caprice Basque, Op. 24. As the sitting concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra – I'd seen him play at the Savannah Music Festival nearly four months earlier – Coucheron couldn't have chosen a better audition piece to gain his prestigious chair. Beyond the double bowing and the ricochet bowing that we had seen earlier, the violinist piled on glissandos, feverish runs of harmonics, and most impressive, pizzicato accompaniment from his left hand to the melody he bowed with his right. Only the most elderly and disabled were able to remain in their seats after such marvels. Instead of rewarding the ovation with an encore, he challenged his audience to remember the piece he had just played until his next appearance at the festival. It will be hard to forget.