Classical music venues are responding dramatically to the major cultural shifts we have experienced in recent years. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Sunday Series, being no exception, opened new doors as relative newcomer violinist Geneva Lewis and dancer Ashley Bouder mixed works of older faces Bach, Bartok and Stravinsky, with newer faces Saariaho, Frances-Hoad and Esmail. Choreography by Gianna Reisman accented Calderwood’s “sonic cube.”
The 25-year-old New Zealand-born, multiple prizewinner and New England Conservatory graduate Geneva Lewis partnered with Bouder not in Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances or in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Fairy’s Kiss but rather in J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major. Before that, the newer faces played in succession without pause beginning with Reena Esmail (b.1983), her “Charukeshi” from Darshan from 2018. The Indian-American combined Western and North Indian heritages, the latter heavily flavoring the five-minutes of solo violin music: it would be a musical alphabet from that tradition, a scale and associated material, that would have Lewis spiraling about in obvious reverence, phrases often wafting upwards over feathery harmonics aptly caught on a “composite” Guadagnini, c. 1776. For the solo violin’s double-stops referencing the West, Lewis dug in, predictive of things to come.
Nocturne from 1994 by Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023) meant sadness especially thinking of the recent passing of this oft-played composer. As if tuning, the open A-string began the clearly outlined expressions of sighing, shallow and deep, of an attractively dark nocturne. Lewis was completely onto its ways, as if a certain detachment was intentional. As with works of that time, an open spaciousness allowed Lewis’s intimate presence its due.
During the global feel of Esmail and Saariaho, flashes of the Middle East came to mind. Could that further speak to the Gardner Museum’s reaching outward?
Suite No. 1 (2014) is a five-movement work for solo violin by the British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad. She was “inspired by Bach’s Partita” the very one on today’s program, she disclaimed, though, any real resemblances. Fascinating whistling and plucking from Lewis showing, yet again, an unmistakable fondness for these and other wispy violinistics. The metronomic would not let up, nor did time reconcile well with the melodic flow mostly built of short phrases.
Dancing to Bach came with world-premiere choreography by Gianna Reisen (ISBM commission) and with lighting by Emily Bearce; Lewis and contemporaries would build pre-show expectation. Unfortunately, this partnership only entertained. Fully aware that Bach can take a multitude of directions, this would not be the case of going too far, this way or that. Rather, Lewis and dancer Ashley Bouder synced at times to this and that gesture, other times Lewis would be the fiddling tempter inviting an awaiting Bouder to dance with her. Neither going Baroque or Modern but something that showered much attention on the violinist and dancer. Their Bach tickled a bit, particularly the Gavotte en Rondeau. Copiously interpretative, little to no room spared for introspection.
After intermission, Geneva Lewis with standout collaborative pianist Dina Vainshtein at the Steinway performed Romanian dances and Russian ballet music. Bartók’s 1915/1925 work opened with Stick Dance where Lewis partnered well with her robust violin timbre and rhythm, Sash Dance even more. Whistling harmonics followed and biting bow strokes countered. In the closer Fast Dance Lewis really bore down.
Vainshtein’s piano brought a whole new meaning to the afternoon. Accompanying and beyond she played expertly. Her keen ability to put herself squarely in the music, first in the Bartók and then in the Stravinsky, reaffirms the critical praise she deservedly has received over the years.
The Russian’s ballet arranged by S. Duskin took to brighter times with dances and songs, The Fairy’s Kiss (1928/1934) in violin and piano color evoking another time. Softer, lighter passages found more understanding from Lewis, whose thinking more typically pointed away from duo and toward concerto mode. The Guadagnini perhaps might not be the best match for big playing. Virtuosity’s demands were met head on with the young violinist surely exhibiting an instrumental artistry. She studied previously with Miriam Fried at NEC. Her current teacher, Mihaela Martin at Kronberg Academy, will hopefully encourage further naturalness and spontaneity.