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There was a large turnout of eager music lovers in Dana Auditorium on the Gilford College campus for violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's unconventional recital. She is one of the 2016 Eastern Music Festival Tannenbaum-Sternberger Distinguished Teaching Artists. Her program married a standard violin and piano duo format with a conductorless chamber orchestra program after intermission. Her piano partner was this season's busiest accompanist Marika Bournaki. The chamber orchestra of 10 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 double basses, and percussion was made up of both experienced faculty players and 8 advanced EMF String Fellows.
Both halves of Salerno-Sonnenberg's concert opened with characteristic works by Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). The Estonian minimalist composer blends static, chant-like music with his own unique style which he calls "tintinnabuli," involving bell-like tones made from a simple triad.
Salerno-Sonnenberg paired Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano (1978) without a break with the marvelous Violin Sonata No. 1 in A, Op. 13 (1875) by Gabriel Fauré. The Pärt piece was an exquisite study in subtle colors and the infinite variety of ppp playing. Violin intonation was flawless and harmonics were very refined. Bournaki conjured up sounds suggestive of distant wind chimes. The Fauré – the most popular of the composer's four violin sonatas and the only one composed before the age of 70 – could not have a stronger foil. Both players passed the theme – a melody embedded in rapid figuration – back and forth throughout the Allegro molto. Salerno-Sonnenberg and Bournaki blended an undercurrent of pathos with the aching, poignant melodies of the Andante. Technical fireworks fairly crackled between both players in the Allegro vivo. The vigorous finale, Allegro quasi presto, fairly burst with the rhythmic vitality of the players.
The chamber orchestra half of Salerno-Sonnenberg's program opened with Fratres, one of Pärt's most ubiquitous works. This was followed by the Larghetto movement from the Serenade in E minor for Strings, Op. 20 by Edward Elgar (1857-1934), and the complete Holberg Suite, Op. 40 by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).
Fratres was originally composed by Pärt in 1977 for string quartet and wind quintet but has since been arranged in 16 versions. The timeless world of medieval chant hovers over this work as a principal melody is expanded, inverted, and repeated. Salerno-Sonnenberg led the performance from the first violin chair. To a constant but hushed double bass drone, each section of strings was slowly added with a gradual increase in dynamics while the percussionist added subtle punctuation. Intonation and ensemble were remarkably good. This dovetailed without break into the full, hearty and rich melodies of the Elgar Larghetto.
Salerno-Sonnenberg and her players played the socks off the complete five movements of Grieg's Holberg Suite. The violinist was clearly having a ball – a hoedown sitting down! She is a very physically active player. Among the outstanding performances was the first stand cellists' duet in the lovely Sarabande. The hit of the night was Salerno-Sonnenberg's and violist Diane Phoenix-Neal's uninhibited duet in the concluding Rigaudon in which they suggested the sound of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. Their performance was as priceless as it was memorable. What a DVD this episode would have made!
Much of the delights of the Rigaudon were to be found in the wild and crazy, surreal "Polka" by Alfred Schnittke (1934-98). The Russian composer's style is called "polystylism" which, according to the program notes, "combined music from a vast range of styles, both old and modern, with a dark ironic sensibility." Uninhibited dissonant harmonies and frantic rhythms overran the traditional beat. This polka was trippin'! Another vivid duet between Phoenix-Neal and Salerno-Sonnenberg in this work brought down the house. Multiple, prolonged standing ovations were rewarded by a brief unannounced melody from Salerno-Sonnenberg.