in: Reviews

October 4, 2010

Nothing Forced in Potpourri from Violinist par excellence Stepner

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On Sunday night, October 3, at Harvard University’s Paine Hall, violinist Daniel Stepner presented a program entitled, Potpourri — and so it was, but what a well-chosen one from rarely heard compositions. His distinguished career of playing, teaching, recording a wide variety of music from the 17th to the 21st centuries, as a soloist and in chamber and orchestral ensembles, and now as Director of the Aston Magna Festival, is unusual. His thoughtful musical taste and skills are always welcome and stimulating to us, and he is constantly finding even more nourishment for himself. With his sweet tones and changing colors, nothing is ever forced, even when playing with great heat. This, his rare concert as a featured soloist, was thus not to be missed.

It opened with a curious and quite wonderful achievement: his own transcription of J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, without the fugue, S. 903, in D minor. The original may be viewed here, where the difficulties of transcribing this keyboard work are immediately apparent, particularly in the chordal passages beginning on the third page. In his own program notes Mr. Stepner described some of the process as he settled on the piece’s “natural habitat” in G minor, when “the ‘Gypsy’ elements emerged unbidden.” He seemed to enjoy this new-found role for himself and the music, swaying and leaning into it, giving in to deliberately erratic tempi and extremely virtuosic playing, never, however, sacrificing his incredibly smooth bowing.

Next came Hindemith’s Sonata, again for violin solo, op. 31, no. 2 (1924), a lovely gem-like “breather,” written in the midst of a hugely prolific period of his so-called Neue Sachlichkeit (New objectivity). It is subtitled “Es ist so schönes Wetter draussen“ (The weather is so lovely outside), and who knew that Hindemith could write with this kind of warm, gentle humor? The first three movements, awkwardly but suggestively titled, “Lightly moving quarter-note,” “Peacefully moving eighth-note,” and “Easy-going quarter-note,” trundle along almost independently of the titles, the first wafting in the breeze, the second playing on minor thirds, and the third entirely in pizzicato. The fourth is a charming set of variations on Mozart’s song, “Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling” (Longing for spring), K. 596 — Hindemith adopts the first line, “Komm lieber Mai” (Come, dear May) for his title.

Mr. Stepner was next joined by three students he has recently taught at Harvard: violinist Aaron Kuan, ’09, violist Lucy Caplan, ’12, and cellist Nick Bodnar, ’11, none of whom are pursuing music as a career. They performed James Yannatos’s String Quartet no. 2, written in 1964 in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The titles of its six movements alternate between descriptive terms (“Premonition,” “Lamentation,” “Reflection”) and the more traditional “Scherzo,” “Intermezzo,” and “Finale.” It is a tribute to Mr. Stepner that he has brought these students to the point where their ensemble playing is so disciplined, yet responsive to each other and to the music; and they obviously enjoyed performing this richly rewarding work on many levels. Mr. Yannatos, who retired after forty-five legendary years as conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, himself was beaming.

After intermission Mr. Stepner performed with pianist Donald Berman, chiefly known as an exponent of the works of Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles and a willing performer of new works by living composers. Although on the faculty of Tufts University, he is currently a Radcliffe Fellow, exploring the archives of Nadia Boulanger in Harvard’s Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library for new fodder. Their first collaboration was Worries Just as Real (2008), commissioned by the National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center in Taiwon, by another Radcliffe Fellow this year, Yu-Hui Chang, Associate Professor of Music at Brandeis, and Co-Artistic Director of the Dinosaur Annex. Written for a “promising violinist at the age of seventeen,” it is concerned with a teen-ager’s “excitement, frustration, and romantic spirit that will soon be lost.” The first movement, “Pierced Heart,” is characterized by random and/or steady iterations of single notes in the piano (heartbeats), and long phrases representing the agony of such a condition. The second movement, “Momentary Eternity,” is ethereal, with long, sustained notes and phrases. The third, “The Thrill and Unease towards the Unknown,” is energetic with driving rhythms. It was justifiably and warmly received.

The final two works, by Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives, proved to be an amazing juxtaposition, almost “worth the price of admission,” as they say (except that there was none). Both Messrs. Stepner and Berman have long been associated with the music of both composers — Mr. Berman is Secretary of the Charles Ives Society. On this occasion they performed Ruggles’ Mood: Prelude to an Imaginary Tragedy (ca. 1918), and Ives’s Sonata no. 2 (1907-1910), playing from copies of manuscripts edited by John Kilpatrick. He was editor of both the composers’ works, with whom Stepner worked closely while he was at Yale and afterwards. Stepner remarked from the stage that the Ruggles (completed by Mr. Kirkpatrick from sketches) is in four “paragraphs,” although there are no movement markings, and he quoted the unattributed poem at the top of Kirkpatrick’s manuscript: “Our world is young, / Young, and of measure passing bound; / Infinite are the heights to climb, / The depths to sound.” The piece comprised “in-your-face” dissonance, where the violin and piano frequently went their separate ways, but the vigor of both the composition and the performance was exhilarating. The Ives has three movements: “Autumn” (from the hymn-tune, not the season), “In the Barn,” and “The Revival.” “In the Barn,” as could be expected, was full of syncopations and rhythmic shifts, extremely well performed by both. It is multivalent, with competing melodies, rising to a vigorous ending. “The Revival” is soft and reminiscent, a kind of quiet coda to the entire concert.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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