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Portals: Tim Fain at the Avant Gardner


Tim Fain is an excellent violinist, with big sound and big technique and a big heart for total involvement with his music.  Wearing a bright purple shirt, he was the only live performer last night in Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but his five collaborators, all appearing on screen, had all the actuality one might ask for in a flesh-and-blood performance.  It was fascinating to watch the effortless coordination between Fain and pianist Nicholas Britell, often joined by Fain simultaneously on a split screen, and sometimes even at a second remove with a screen image of a laptop-computer screen.  The coordination extended to miming of physical position, and even to the direction of the violin bowing—upbow by Fain live was precisely matched with upbow of Fain on screen.

The program was headlined as “Portals,” a title which may or may not have been borrowed from Carl Ruggles, and carried a subtitle: “A multi-media exploration of longing and connection in the digital age.”  The musical portions alternated with poems by Leonard Cohen, read on screen by Fred Child.   Lev Zhurbin’s Sicilienne, according to the composer’s notes, was inspired by Chausson’s Concerto for piano, violin and string quartet; it was an elegant dialogue for violin and piano, not much like Chausson and not at all like a real sicilienne, but a lovely piece nevertheless.  Nico Muhly’s Honest Music, which followed, had a forceful electronic support with a D pedal point and some strident canonic combat with the live violin; this was the loudest music of the evening.  Nearly as vigorous, and melodically and tonally more continuous, was Aaron Jay Kernis’s Air, with a visually appealing background featuring three dancers, Craig Black, Julia Eichten, and Haylee Nichele.  I liked the location and scenery of these pieces, too, including the visual tour through a big luxurious mansion (with a momentary glimpse of Arnold Newman’s famous photograph of Stravinsky dwarfed by the piano lid).

The centerpiece of the evening was Philip Glass’s recently-composed Partita for solo violin, a work in seven movements lasting 33 minutes, written for Fain.  The movements are ordered symmetrically, with the final Chaconne (Part 2) about 12 minutes long and of arch-like architecture like Bach’s famous Chaconne.   The entire work featured abundant melodic and textural variety, mostly in four-bar phrases that seemed to alternate between Bach-like figurations and exercise-book patterns, within an unvarying A minor tonality.  (I was expecting to hear traces of an early Glass piece for solo violin called Strung Out, whose steady eighth-notes continue relentlessly for 24 pages of score; but this Partita was completely different.)  Tim Fain’s mighty technique was especially exciting to hear in this piece – and to see on screen as well; the lighting sometimes gave us a glimpse of his shadow against the rear wall of the stage, three images at once.

William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost is familiar to every pianist in B-flat minor, but the violin version—if I recall correctly, Bolcom wrote the transcription for Itzhak Perlman—was in A minor, a more violinistic key, and included an extra contrapuntal section.  The violin-piano dialogue involved several passages when the screen performers stopped playing and relaxed on a couch while the music continued, live and split-screen.  This was the only time in the evening when we heard any pizzicato, a startling sound after so much furious bowing.  Arches by Kevin Puts, a short but dazzling virtuoso study, concluded the evening.

What was avant-garde about this whole event?   The hall was mostly empty, with perhaps 120 in the audience on the floor, and not more than a dozen on the upper tiers.  The mixture of live and beautifully coordinated electronic sound, and the visual complement, were hardly unusual in this day and age.  The real vanguard of the future may have been the almost total absence of anything like atonality, notwithstanding the occasionally sharply dissonant harmony.  Nor was there much of anything like traditional minimalism, if it can be called that; repetition and ostinato were no more radical than what one might find in a book of études, whether for violin or for piano.  I freely admit that this kind of music is way out of my line; but I enjoyed the entire concert and was fully focused at every moment, and that fact may be the most avant-garde observation of all.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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