Visceral Violin vs. Sputtering Cabaret

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (10): Sylvia McNair (soprano), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (violin). 9.8.2013 (HS)

Sylvia McNair, soprano, 5 August
Music of Gershwin, Sondheim, et al

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin, 7 August
Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
Bing Wang, violin
Espen Lilleslåtten, violin
Masao Kawasaki, viola
Brinton Smith, cello
Arvo Pärt: Spiegel Im Spiegel
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata In F Minor, Op. 80
Chausson: Concert In D Major, Op. 21

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott make quite a musical pair. In their recital Thursday night in Harris Hall they reveled in musical contrast from quietly simple to explosively broad, and they did it with consummate musicianship.

A sold-out hall heard Salerno-Sonnenberg, a long-time festival favorite, and McDermott (who is also director of Bravo! Vail, that other music festival in the Colorado mountains) squeeze every ounce of drama from two pieces that stretch the definition of chamber music. They hit just about every emotional point on the scale. An all-star faculty quartet aided and abetted them in the second half in an incendiary performance of Chausson’s big-boned, heart-on-sleeve Concert in D Major, about as far musically as one can get from the opener, Arvo Pärt’s deceptively naïve Spiegel Im Spiegel.

The piano plays mostly broken triads while the violin intones long-toned scales in the Pärt work, a lovely example of the composer’s resolutely consonant, spiritual style. Mild tension comes from every violin entrance, which changes the harmony. This is exposed playing. Any intonation slips would be obvious. This was gorgeous.

Whoever had the idea of segueing directly into Prokofiev’s turbulent Violin Sonata in F Major was a genius. In mood and musical complexity, there were subconscious links that framed elements of Prokofiev’s music in a new light. Not least were the rapid, barely-audible scales on the violin that conclude the first movement. Playing against quiet chords on the piano, they could be heard as a nervous echo of the long-toned scales in the Pärt. Salerno-Sonnenberg executed them with utmost delicacy.

The gruff intermezzo of the second movement juxtaposed with the extraordinary “night music” of the long central Andante, rendered with a magical combination of precision and atmospherics. The offbeat rhythms of the finale had the violinist literally stamping her feet as if in some wacky hoedown, only to return to the magic of those skittery scales in the final moments.

McDermott grounded any impetuosity with burnished piano playing. Rhythmically precise, she never lost a touch that created richness of sound, weaving dynamic changes in sync with Salerno-Sonnenberg. That same unity of approach paid dividends in the Chausson, which in the wrong hands can veer into caricature. But violinists Bing Wang and Espen Lilleslatten, violist Masao Kawasaki and cellist Brinton Smith let out the musical reins just enough to make things pulse and flow without overdoing it.

Even more physically demonstrative in the second half, Salerno-Sonnenberg took charge as leader in much the same way she leads San Francisco’s Century Chamber Orchestra, the conductor-less ensemble she directs from her concertmaster chair. All the communicative body movements were there. And so were the big, rich climaxes, expressive without going overblown, and breathtaking moments of extreme finesse. The result was 35 minutes of visceral thrills and excitement, a place where chamber music seldom goes so unabashedly.

If this concert rolled with irresistible momentum, Sylvia McNair’s cabaret show Monday sputtered.

After a long and distinguished career as an opera singer, McNair decided to follow her passion and focus on the American songbook. In a special event at Harris Hall she outlined how that happened in a nicely shaped sequence that paralleled songs that popped into her head with the arias she was being paid to sing. She began with a few lines from Cleopatra’s “V’adoro pupille” from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” segueing into Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.” Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” led to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy.” Most memorably, Bizet’s Habañera from “Carmen” morphed into “Whatever Lola Wants” from “Damn Yankees.”

Unfortunately the rest of her 75-minute set seldom delighted so nicely or made such distinctive use of her lush voice and fine technique. Doing Bernstein’s “One Hand, One Heart” as a slow jazz waltz, or half-heartedly scatting on Gershwin’s “’S Wonderful,” served to rob such songs of their essence rather than expand upon them.

Things heated up with a sensually slow “Do It Again” (by Gershwin and DaSylva). At another point she picked up a violin and rolled into lively renditions of “Orange Blossom Special” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Alas, lacking such surprises, most of the set came off as tepid. Unimaginative arrangements didn’t help, either.

Harvey Steiman