Yes, Today’s Composers Are Still Writing Violin Sonatas

United StatesUnited States  Shanfield, Shaw, Lash, Kosugi, Aucoin, S.C. Adams, Wollschlager, Cerrone: Rachel Lee Priday (violin), David Kaplan (piano). SubCulture, New York City. 6.2.2015 (BH)

Eric Shanfield: Violin Sonata
Caroline Shaw: XVI. Mit guten Humor and un poco lol ma con serioso vibes
Hannah Lash: Liebesbrief an Schumann
Sayo Kosugi: Delirious Distortion
Matthew Aucoin: Celan Fragments
Samuel Carl Adams: Aves Nostradamus
Scott Wollschlager: Cuteness Piece
Christopher Cerrone: Sonata for Violin and Piano

What does it mean to write in a venerable form? In this fascinating glimpse of the current state of the violin sonata, presented by MATA as part of its “Interval” series, violinist Rachel Lee Priday and pianist David Kaplan tried to answer that question, charming an eager audience at SubCulture. And in some cases, the past vaulted forward, generating contemporary reflections that lingered long after.

Kaplan described Eric Shanfield’s Violin Sonata as “disorienting,” and its clipped phrases, artfully assembled into a parade of stuttering rhythms, seemed plucked from a sheaf of sonatas from the 19th century. Schumann’s “Prophet Bird” inspired Samuel Carl Adams’s Aves Nostradamus (2008), in which the first movement, “Stutter,” asks the pianist to tap and rub the instrument’s undercarriage, after altering the piano’s strings with putty and screws. In the second section, “Prophecy,” the piano repeats a single note as the violin breathes in ethereal commentary.

Schumann was invoked again in two brief interludes for piano alone, based on the composer’s Davidsbündlertänze, a set of sixteen dances. Kaplan asked composers to respond to one of their choice, and Hannah Lash used No. 14 to make Liebesbrief an Schumann, a pleasingly chromatic episode. Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw chose No. 16 to create XVI. Mit guten Humor and un poco lol ma con serioso vibes, a witty concoction of nonstop scales. And Ms. Priday had a solo turn with Sayo Kosugi’s Delirious Distortion, as dazzling as a modern-day Paganini caprice.

Other works seemed more of the present day, or perhaps with a whiff of the recent Cage-ian era, such as Scott Wollschlager’s Cuteness Piece, with the duo immersed in an avalanche of tiny motifs, some generated by, as Kaplan noted, “a fair amount of indeterminacy.” And I thought of Cage’s late “number pieces” during Matthew Aucoin’s Celan Fragments, an austere mix of notes, substantial pauses, and readings of Paul Celan’s poems. In both works, Priday and Kaplan  stepped carefully inside the composers’ idioms.

In the program notes, Christopher Cerrone revealed that roughly a decade ago, he swore he would never write a piece for violin and piano. Eventually he decided otherwise, and his new Sonata for Violin and Piano was born. It is a barrage of high harmonics and tremolos, coupled with decisive, stentorian piano chords—a riveting essay, teeming with constant motion. As Priday and Kaplan showed in their feverish reading, we are lucky to have it.

Bruce Hodges

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