Sunday, July 1, 2012

Leonid Sigal and Shostakovich's Violin Concerto

Recently, I attended the Hartford Symphony's season finale, featuring Carmina Burana with the Hartford Chorale. It was great to hear Rick Coffey's singers in splendid form, and a pleasure to see Carolyn Kuan as well, who is bringing her own brand of excitement to the HSO.

Most people were there to hear Carmina; I was there, principally, to hear my friend play Shostakovich. It's a piece I had always wanted to do with Lenny, and was glad to see him finally get to do it on a big stage.

It's a big gamble to open a program with this concerto, as it immediately asks a lot of the audience. From the start, with low strings, probing, we were all drawn in. After hearing some of the finale during the dress rehearsal, I was back to hear the first performance on Thursday, then came back for more on Sunday. Simply put, I could not get enough of it.

My memories of it are strong. My first time with the piece was when Frank Peter Zimmerman played it with Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony, probably sometime during the 1997-98 season. During the pre-rehearsal -- a time during which conductor and soloist typically go through the piece together so that both are on the same page once they step in front of the orchestra -- they engaged in chit chat, with nary a mention about the concerto. Jansons and Zimmerman were like two old friends who had not seen each other in years. I felt like an intruder, sitting off to the side. Still, I wondered how the rehearsal would go, given how difficult the work is to prepare.

I need not have wondered, for Zimmerman gave a searing performance in the first play-through, and Jansons was with him, lockstep. Still relatively new in his Pittsburgh appointment, Jansons was trying to distance himself from the Russian repertory for which he had become duly well known, electing to do all of the London symphonies of Haydn in his first two seasons, with a healthy dose of Beethoven and Brahms. But somehow this Shostakovich work had slipped into the schedule, and it quickly became evident to the orchestra players why Jansons was so adept at this repertoire. After the play-through, I could see players looking at each other in amazement at what they had just done. This was the kind of playing one expects with a full audience, not for an audience of one.

Several years later, the Pittsburgh Symphony took the work on an Asian tour with Midori, who also played the Bruch G minor. Her playing of the Bruch was quite good, but each time Midori played the Shostakovich, there was a thinly disguised anger that made her performance compelling.

I had always wondered about Midori, whom I had heard for the first time when she was just ten years old. It was a master class at Aspen, circa 1982, with Pinchas Zukerman. Midori was going to play the Bartok concerto. (When I asked Zukerman about this years later, he shouted at me, "You were there!? When her mother told me she was going to play Bartok, I thought, 'yeah, right,' and then she started to play and . . . .") Most girl violinist prodigys (Sarah Chang, Hilary Hahn) grow up to be young women violinists, but Midori, now approaching middle age, still has the aura and appearance of a little girl. With her Shostakovich, I had the sensation that there was a young adult, screaming to get out.

But Leonid Sigal brought an intensity to the work that I found astonishing. With his performance, it was clear he understood the demands on everyone -- not just soloist, conductor and players, but also the audience. And at the onset of the cadenza, a full length movement of its own, just when you thought he could not go any further, Sigal revealed a hyperintensity, unleashed from the orchestra.

Days later, the Shostakovich was still throbbing in my head. Bravo to Carolyn, the Hartford Symphony, and to my dear friend and colleague Leonid Sigal, who continues to amaze me with his musical insight.

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