Music review: Jacobsen and Levingston at Library of Congress

May 8, 2011

Armed with vision, courage, a sense of humor and a devastating bow arm, violinist Colin Jacobsen is emerging as one of the most interesting figures on the classical music scene. His eclectic tastes run from the baroque to hot-off-the-press and from the Far East to West Virginia. His associations with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and string quartet Brooklyn Rider have taken him and his music all over the world. On Friday, he and pianist Bruce Levingston were at the Library of Congress with a program that Jacobsen described as focused on the ideas of resonance and cycles, a program of considerable variety and challenge, both for the performers and the audience.

The cycles were represented by a pair of passacaglias, Heinrich Biber’s textbook example of wistful and agile baroque explorations of the solo violin as a contrapuntal and harmonic instrument, and, in its premiere, Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s completely different take on the form. Yanov-Yanovsky gives the violin an extended ornamental figure of racing notes as the repeating passacaglia ostinato and has it played offstage so that its presence is more an aura than a sturdy harmonic foundation. The piano’s contribution, at first sparing (individual notes sometimes plucked from inside the instrument) gathers in complexity as the piece develops. To these ears, however, Yanov-Yanovsky ran out of ideas well before the piece ended.

Perhaps the work that most obviously played around with the effects of resonance was Sebastian Currier’s “Digital Mist” for violin, piano and digital echoes, another premiere that was performed with exquisite attention to timing and balance. Here, the interplay of the digital and the acoustic was delicate and subtle, each echoing the other in turn but the digital always hovering above the sounds of the acoustic instruments. When the instruments copied the digital lines, they did so with astonishing veracity.

Of the three premieres on the program, David Bruce’s “The Shadow of the Blackbird” for solo piano was the most closely rooted in idioms of the past. Influenced by passages from Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” Bruce does not wander far from a Schumann sound. He does nice things with quickly repeated notes (Levingston managed these with a wonderfully even touch) and seems to focus on transparency and timeless reverie, which Levingston projected beautifully.

The three biggest pieces on the program, Dvorak’s “Four Romantic Pieces”, the Janacek Sonata and an arrangement of Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango” were splendid showcases for Jacobsen’s talents. He lavished his gutsy, slightly grainy sound on the broad romanticism of Dvorak’s songlike lines, his up-bows sounding like they could go on forever. He exploded his way though Janacek’s angry outbursts and danced suggestively through Piazzolla’s big, showy extravaganza, but he made his strongest impression in the much more modest challenges of Biber’s delicacies, in which every touch was shaped to perfection.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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