Mark Gresham | 3 OCT 2022
The weather was unexpectedly pleasant on Friday evening when Spivey Hall opened its 2022-23 season with a recital by superstar violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Peter Dugan. The remains of Hurricane Ian had tracked much farther east than predicted early in the week, absolving metro Atlanta of any torrents of rain, even as cautious meteorologists kept a 30% chance of precipitation within the day’s forecasts.
Bell needs no introduction here, of course. Dugan is perhaps best recognized as the host of National Public Radio’s From the Top. In 2020, he joined Bell for At Home with Music, a national PBS broadcast and live album release on Sony Classical. This Spivey Hall concert is part of Dugan’s continued collaboration as pianist with violinist Bell, touring internationally in recitals.
The audience got the kind of exhilarating performance that they were eagerly anticipating. The excellent weather outdoors was a bonus.
Bell and Dugan opened the program with Franz Schubert’s Violin Sonatina in D major, D.384, the first of three, all written in 1816 when the composer was 19. That’s hardly precocious, as Schubert had completed his Symphony No. 3 the year before. Even though Schubert titled them Sonatas in his autographs, they were published together as Op. 137 by Anton Diabelli as Drei Sonatinen für Piano-Forte und Violine (“Three Sonatinas for Piano and Violin”) in 1836, well after the composer’s death. Diabelli changed the titles from Sonata to Sonatina, hoping the less imposing moniker would increase sales to amateurs.
Schubert’s three Sonatinas hearken back to the violin sonatas of Mozart, where the violin part is more subdued and tied closely to the dominant piano part. They are relatively short, intimate, and do not demand much bravura from the performers. This particular one typically takes only about 13 minutes to perform.
In this performance, Bell and Dugan delightfully explored Schubert’s more “classical” side, an aspect of the early Romantic composer’s style that is often too easily ignored. The audience received a clear and cheerful performance.
The Schubert Sonatina was followed by Beethoven’s substantial Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2, composed about 15 years earlier, between 1801 and 1802, and twice as long in duration. By the time of its composition, Beethoven had left the piano-dominated sonata model behind, giving the violin part more independence, greater technical demands, and much more of an equal role.
By following Schubert’s Sonatina, the performance highlighted the pioneering nature of Beethoven’s style. But it also demonstrated the concurrent influence of the past and present innovations upon younger generations of composers. The two composers would not meet face to face until 1822, when Schubert, accompanied by Diabelli, visited Beethoven.
A different kind of enlightening comparison between two other composers came after intermission.
Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959) was a Swiss-American composer born in Geneva to Jewish parents. He took up the violin at age nine and studied music at the conservatory in Brussels, where his teachers included Eugène Ysaÿe. He lived in Frankfurt, Paris, and again Geneva before emigrating to the United States in 1916, becoming a citizen in 1924.
Bloch remained creatively conscious of his Jewish heritage, which influenced much of his music.
Bell and Dugan chose “Nigun” from Bloch’s Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Hasidic Life (1923) to open the program’s second half, performing it with intensity and passion, bringing its prominent cantorial character to the fore along with flavors of Yiddish folk elements.
The same year Bloch composed Baal Shem in America, Maurice Ravel, on the other side of the Atlantic, began work on his Violin Sonata No. 2, which he finally completed four years later, in 1927.
The Belle Époque of pre-World War I Paris, in which Ravel was raised, significantly impacted European music, moving it away from romanticism toward musical impressionism and modernism. After the end of that era and the death of Claude Debussy in 1918, Maurice Ravel was regarded internationally as France’s greatest living composer for the next two decades.
During les Années Folles (literally “the crazy years” better Anglicized as “The Roaring Twenties”), Paris was one of the world’s leading cultural capitals, celebrating diversity and embracing the extravagant. It was an influential cultural vector and gathering place for those who would emerge as artistic and literary legends of the twentieth century. It is hard to underestimate the post-War American influences of ragtime, blues, and jazz on the Parisian music scene at the time.
Such was the environment in which Ravel wrote his Second Violin Sonata. By 1921, Ravel had moved to Montfort-l’Amaury, about 50km west of Paris. He and violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, for whom he was a collaborative pianist, shared a love for the jazz and blues that permeated the Paris music scene in that decade. Those American idioms inspired much of the music in the Sonata, although it is unquestionably French music and indelibly Ravel.
It was the pinnacle of the evening, garnering an enthusiastic ovation from the audience.
The performers returned to the stage for a pair of encores composed by legendary violinists: Fritz Kreisler’s Liebeslied and Henryk Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantelle, Op. 16.
Bell and Dugan are now on the road. Tonight (October 3), they perform a recital in Greensboro, NC, as part of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s Concerts and Lectures series.
On October 18, Bell plays a benefit concert for Ukraine with the New Era Orchestra, conducted by Tatiana Kalinichenko, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
The violinist and pianist will then team up with soprano Larisa Martinez on October 20 for “The Voice and the Violin” in New York City at The 92nd Street Y.
After that, Bell and Dugan head to Europe for a set of violin-piano recitals starting October 23 at the Stradivari Festival in Cremona, Italy, with performances in Bologna and Rome on its heels and subsequent stops in Tel Aviv, Zurich, and London, all before the end of the month. ■