‘Paganini Project’: An awkward marriage, better seen than heard

December 16, 2012

Classical music can be for everybody. But there’s also a streak of nerdiness in some of us who love it. Our hearts warm to the idea of delving into old archives and unearthing clues about performance practice and touring life and gossip at the time the music we love was written.

The lecture-demonstration represents a marriage of these two ideas — populism and specialization — and seemed an ideal format for the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved’s “Paganini Project,” presented at the Library of Congress on Saturday afternoon. Sheppard Skaerved is delving into the Library’s extensive Paganini holdings, including his “Red Notebook,” in which Paganini scribbled thoughts, ideas and accounts during his tours. Sheppard Skaerved made a film about his researches this summer, and this lecture was another station in an ongoing project.

The problem with the lecture-demonstration format is that in most cases it has to be well-rehearsed, but “lecture” to many people means “off the cuff.” This had lamentable results for Sheppard Skaerved, who had a lot of great information but presented it choppily, with lacunae. He spoke rapidly, was sometimes hard to hear and wasn’t always clear; for instance, it was hard to keep track of the four fine instruments he used in the course of his talk (two Stradivarii, an Amati and a del Gesu). He had plenty of interesting slides prepared to back up his points, but it was sometimes hard to tell which point was being illustrated.

Sheppard Skaerved’s playing showed a similar blend of the accomplished and what one might call the rumpled. A specialist in contemporary music, he played Paganini as if it were contemporary, focusing on the dissonances and unexpected harmonies of music often played on two strings simultaneously; but while you could understand the intellectual approach behind it, some of it — particularly the two opening Caprices — just didn’t sound very good. The selections were well balanced, some of academic interest — a short Capriccio that the violinist Ole Bull once played in a Paganini costume — and some showing Paganini’s present-day influence, like an excerpt from Judith Bingham’s “The Lost Works of Paganini” or one of Paul Osterfield’s 24 Caprices from 2011: the 17th, which is played not with a bow, but with a chopstick.

The afternoon was certainly a fine representation of a work in progress: full of potential, but not yet entirely realized.


British violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved delves into the Library of Congress's Niccolo Paganini collection during a performance on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)
Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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