The Phillips Collection’s concert series is getting adventurous this season, moving away from traditional recitals of traditional repertoire. Case in point was Sunday’s recital by Danish-Swiss violinist Niklas Walentin, 22, whose principal offering was the virtually unknown “Violin Concerto” by Lou Harrison. In this sui generis work, from 1959, the violin writing is fairly conventional modern Americana, but the “orchestra” consists of five percussionists dealing with dozens and dozens of instruments, including flower pots, clock coils, a cello (struck relatively gently on the strings above and below the bridge) and all sorts of gongs.
The overall effect tickles the ear indeed. One strives, though, to grasp any meaning beyond its novelty. It would be almost better if the violin were given crazy, percussive passages, attempting to “talk” to the orchestra. But the syncretism here seemed simply like a random idea, carried out in a full-length piece. Still, it was undeniably enjoyable to hear once (and Walentin has just recorded the work on Naxos). Jean Thorel led the group So Percussion expertly through the thicket of polyrhythms, and four of the members offered two short, a capella works on their own — Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music,” which was exactly what it sounds like, and John Cage’s “Living Room Music,” a deconstruction, in phased repetitions, of a Gertrude Stein poem.
On the first half, Walentin played sonatas by Nielsen (Op. 9) and Brahms (Op. 100) with pianist Christina Bjorkoe. The Nielsen is also virtually unknown to U.S. audiences. Only in the finale could one sense foreshadowing of the quirky melodic material and liquid sense of tonality that marks his mature style; the rest of the work was both derivative and long-winded. But, like the Harrison, it deserves an occasional hearing.
Walentin is a fastidious, well-trained musician. His sound, while relatively small, is clean, always in the center of the pitch and vibrant. The bow moves in perfectly straight lines, no matter how fast, and he clears technical hurdles without effort. Walentin’s bio listed only one previous U.S. appearance, but this recital showed musical intellect, a questing soul and superior command of the instrument. I hope he starts to visit our shores often.