Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recital Excitement

Broad hosts Salerno-Sonnenberg, Bell, DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato: photo by author

by Donna Perlmutter

Santa Monica’s Broad Stage is crackling with musical fireworks these days – in swift succession there were celebrity violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Joshua Bell. Then came the starry mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. For three consecutive nights revelers packed the house and got what they came for.

Among those treats, a rarity. Now when have you seen or heard from that first fiddler mentioned above? Not recently. But when Salerno-Sonnenberg arrived at the Eli-Edythe Broad jewel of a hall, leading and playing with the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra, the 50-year-old virtuosa lit up the stage with her pizzazz, passion and personality.

In fact, those qualities also proved infectious to the mostly female string ensemble. Could we -- jokingly, of course -- call it a version of Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra (plus four men)? Seriously, though, the playing was robust, full-bodied, spirited, and nowhere more so than in Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade,” a work seared indelibly in many minds by Balanchine’s same-titled ballet, the waltz a thing of smiling loveliness under Salerno-Sonnenberg’s ministrations.

So, too, was the rest of her program made up of easy-access music, leaning to various ethnic rhythms. Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances, ” with their deep syncopations in gutsy minor key, had a special allure. And Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov, was just as characterful. Vivaldi quotes kept creeping in here and there. But this account was less intriguing than the Gidon Kremer edition we heard downtown several years ago when the Latvian violinist and his Kremerata Baltica played their “Seasons,” which slyly alternated full sections of the Vivaldi score with Piazzolla tangos.

This violinist, though, who used to upset the staid world of classical music with her self-styled outfits and antic playing, managed a gritty, grunting sound, perfectly in touch with tango style -- and also with the Billie Holiday-ish edgy tone we heard in her encore, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

But Joshua Bell, the next night’s arrival, was no less engaged or engaging -- though focusing on perfect, tonal polish and breath-taking virtuosity. With pianist Sam Haywood – who took equal partnership in Schubert’s dense and rousing "Fantasy in C" – he fashioned high drama. The grand flourish in this music suited him to a T. And all the facets of his extravagant technique that did not get displayed here – the complex filigree, the glassy refinement, contrasting with the great thrusting strokes -- spilled over in the encores, pieces by Wieniawski and Chopin.

One thing, though, that Bell did not (does not) manage from the stage is any sense of inclusiveness with the audience. That belongs largely to women, methinks. And was borne out by mezzo Joyce DiDonato, last on these three nights and accompanied sensitively by pianist David Zobel. She and Salerno-Sonnenberg welcomed their fans sitting out front. They chatted about themselves unself-consciously, praised the Southern California climes that granted a haven from raging snowstorms elsewhere and proved that warmth and charm are critical parts of the performer’s wares.

Still, DiDonato has the goods. She knows how to stand alone onstage and create drama equal to a Hamlet speech – which she did in Haydn’s “Scena di Berenice,” soaring to the top at forte and never producing any wild notes, only purity of delivery. She ran the gamut of emotions – everything from wrenching despair to tenderness in a chillingly delicate trill. Mind you, this number came first in a program of French and Italian songs and arias – no easy warm-up for her. And she went again for the drama in the “Salce” from Rossini’s “Otello.” A stunner.

Her other Rossini offerings hewed to the composer’s lesser-known songs, leaving DiDonato’s big ornamental display to Chaminade’s “L’éte,” which she sang with the kind of glittering coloratura that charms the birds off the trees.

My only quibble is with her mushy diction. And, like most trained singers -- DiDonato included -- they unfurl their magnificent voices without scaling down for wistful little popular songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Although she tried, this girl from Kansas was no Dorothy.


Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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