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Recital Review

Luby & Tsong Light up the Orange Co. Skies

February 15, 2005 - Chapel Hill, NC:

It's been a treat to hear many fine artists over the years and to hear repeatedly those who have chosen to make their homes in our fair state. One of the first regional fiddlers to command this writer's attention years ago, when Spectator Magazine's astute publisher, Bernie Reeves (now heading Metro Magazine) decided that his journal could help unite the Triangle through superior coverage of the arts, was UNC's Richard Luby. At the time, he was a still-fairly-fresh-caught practitioner of the "original instruments" (or HIP – for "historically-informed performance) movement. He was involved in – and a co-founder of – A Society for Performance on Original Instruments, later known as Ensemble Courant, which obliged music lovers in the area to listen anew to compositions we thought we comprehended completely. But Luby was a mainliner with a specialty, and as his bio reveals, he came up in a magnificent environment, studying with Mischakoff and – we recently learned – Szigeti, among others, and in the process getting his "ticket" thoroughly punched. It was eye-opening but hardly surprising that his performance of Berg's Concerto, with the UNCSO, was one of the highlights of the perceived early-music artist's career in Chapel Hill, and it should therefore come as no surprise that, during his latest Hill Hall recital, on February 15, it was a performance of Bartók's Sonata (1944), for solo violin, that helped light up the generally blue sky of Chapel Hill.

Prior to the Bartók, Mayron Tsong and Luby collaborated in a performance of Beethoven's Third Sonata, Op. 12/3, a work, we should recall, intended for pianoforte with violin. We've been hearing Luby play for decades, but Tsong's still fairly new here. She's a stunning addition to UNC's stable of versatile performing artists, able to go head-to-head with the best of 'em in solo literature and, we are learning, in chamber music, too. There were some wonderful touches in the familiar early Beethoven work, touches from Luby that surely resulted from his years with gut strings and comparatively relaxed bows, and touches from Tsong that again and again revealed her sensitivity to the music and to her colleague.

The Bartók Sonata is one of the master's last works, composed when he was dying in America. Its catalog number is Sz 117, and it wasn't published until two years after the composer's death. (Tar Heels may find it curious that he spent some time in Asheville, at the end; and that the Third Piano Concerto, with bird calls suggesting the avian creatures he heard there, is sometimes called the "Asheville" Concerto.) The solo Sonata immediately followed the Concerto for Orchestra, arguably Bartók's greatest work, and preceded a setting of a little folksong ("The husband's grief"), that aforementioned Third Piano Concerto, and the Viola Concerto, completed by Tibor Serly. That, as the saying goes, was the end of the line. (I mention these things in part because there were no notes and no comments from the stage, although the Sonata is hardly conventional fare.)

Luby played the work as if he had been preparing for this concert all his life, so it was astounding to learn afterwards that it was just his second performance of the score before an audience and, as it happens, his very first truly public reading, since the other time had been in a private home. The Sonata is a knotty work for the audience – and surely for the artist, too. This was the published version, not the draft that includes a finale in quartertones. The first movement is a gripping chaconne and the second, a fugue (of sorts) that Luby etched as brilliantly as he etched Bach, early in his tenure here. The slow movement contains premonitions of all sorts of things, surely including death, and it was in places played as softly as I've ever heard any violinist play anything. The finale flew past, under Luby's fingers, but was still a minor miracle of dynamic and technical control. It was surely exhausting to play, and it was emotionally draining but nonetheless immensely satisfying to hear. Bravo!

The concert ended with Saint-Saëns' Sonata No. 1, the same sonata played at Duke just four days before by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk. (For comments on the work itself, readers should look up our colleague Ken Hoover's discussion.) Bell's recital was sold out, but Luby's was free and there were lots of empty seats. The music is popular with fiddlers and the public, and it has a lot to recommend it, with its brilliance and sheen. In the finale, the violin and the piano ripple in turn, in breath-catching exchanges, and then together. Luby and Tsong realized the work wonderfully, bringing the music to life in ways that folks who play many, many programs don't invariably manage. The Chapel Hill audience must have sensed something really special going on, for the attendees were atypically demonstrative, recalling the players repeatedly and letting them go only reluctantly. It was quite a night!