Friday, March 28, 2014

Historic Stradivarius Violins Showcased by LACO

Chee-Youn, Philippe Quint and Margaret Batjer rehearse
By Douglas Neslund

Four of the existing 650 Stradivarius instruments created by Antonio Stradivari in the early 18th century were brought together to be admired for their unique audio qualities and historical curiosity for the admiration and appreciation of a large audience of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra followers at Zipper Concert Hall of the Colburn School Thursday night.

The concert was the second of four events in the “Strad Fest LA” series sponsored by LACO in which the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Georg Philipp Telemann served as brilliant vehicles in the hands of Margaret Batjer (playing the “Milstein” Stradivarius, made in 1716), Cho-Liang Lin (his own “Titian” Strad of 1715), Chee-Yun (the “Leonora Jackson” Strad of 1714) and Philippe Quint (the “Ruby” Strad of 1708).

Cho-Liang Lin and his Titian Strad
Outstanding as a quartet, the audience was treated to the rarely-heard Telemann Concerto in D Major for Four Violins, TWV 40:202, a work of wit and showman qualities that allowed the audience to watch as well as hear, as themes were handed off from one violinist to the next, with the soloists obviously enjoying their common assignments.

The sound produced by these four instruments is not the booming sound sources of today’s violins. In fact, the Strads are smaller, especially in the upper portion above the bridge. The result is a thinner and edgier sound that didn’t always blend well with the other, modern instruments in performance; the typical Bachian aria accompaniments between flute and solo Strad (the Titian) were a bit of a mismatch, although Mr. Lin’s placement further upstage might have played a role.

Three Bach cantatas provided the meat of the performance, and featured the guest vocal excellence of bass Steve Pence and soprano Elissa Johnston. 

The concert opened with Cantata No. 152, a six-movement work entitled “Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn,” with Mr. Pence and Ms. Johnston exchanging recitatives and arias, joining in the final movement in a pietistic conversation between Jesus and the Soul.

Elissa Johnston
The Soul “role” was certainly meant for a high-voiced boy soprano, a vocal instrument known for possessing an upper range in excelsis, and one at Bach’s disposal in Weimar. Use of an innocent child is quite different from the implied relationship between Soul and Jesus when the soprano is an adult female. Nonetheless, Ms. Johnston hit all the high notes without much effort and with her considerable musicianship well intact. Mr. Pence’s bass is darkly rich in overtones but narrow in focus, a very good fit for a hall the size of Zipper Concert Hall.

After the Telemann, the fourth movement of “Sehet, wir gehen hinauf gen Jerusalem,” Cantata No. 159, “Es ist vollbracht” provided Mr. Pence with a solo turn with three of the Strads serving as “halo” accompaniment to Jesus’s triumphant declaration.

Cantata No. 84, “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke,” a solo cantata of five movements brought the evening to a close, courtesy of Ms. Johnston’s artistry and Bach’s expression of satisfaction in his good fortune at God’s provenance. The fifth movement is a chorale, requiring in this case the audience as choir.

Steve Pence
Other performers were the evening’s host, Allan Vogel (oboe); Tereza Stanislav and Josefina Vergara (violin); Roland Kato (viola), who also arranged the Sarabande in B-minor for this occasion leading into the Telemann Concerto; Armen Ksajkian (cello); Peter Lloyd (double bass); Patricia Mabee (harpsichord); and Janice Tipton (flute). The performances were of professional recording excellence, revealing the players' joy in performing this repertoire.

Three other Strads will be heard at a gala event Saturday night, in addition to those on display at Zipper Hall: Serdet, Kreisler, Beechback, and the famous Red Mendelssohn. To be held at the California Club, this is believed to be the first time these seven Strads will have been heard in concert together.


Photo credits, used by permission:
Three Strads - Damian Doverganes
Cho-Liang Lin- MTV Artists
Steve Pence - Los Angeles Master Chorale
Elissa Johnston - Salastina Music

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