April 01, 2014
Courtesy Cho-Liang Lin
When I hear the word ‘fiddlefest,’ my mind paints a very specific picture: bales of hay, people wearing overalls and biting pieces of straw, lots of “yee-haws” filing the air, and a crowd of folks dancing and having a great time. But thanks to LACO’s astounding Stradivarius FiddleFest concert, that image will forever be replaced with the memories from last Friday night. I’ve enjoyed my share of LACO concerts over the years, but I’ve never left a venue feeling so in awe, so invigorated, and so giddy.
The set-up was simple: 5 violinists. 5 violins. Occasional accompaniment on piano or bass. But they weren’t just any violinists, and they weren’t just any violins.
The musicians were all world-class, exceptional violinists, and all of them were playing Stradivarius violins. Each and every one of them.
I didn’t know much about Stradivarius before I arrived at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. I knew the name, and that it’s synonymous with the best violins ever made. I remembered how a Stradivarius figured into a tense scene in “The Prince of Tides,” and can clearly recall Homer finding a Stradivarius at a yard sale in a classic episode of “The Simpsons” (“Stradi-who-vius?” he exclaimed, before tossing it aside).
There was plenty of time for me to read the program before the concert began, and I’m glad I did, because LACO included bios of not only the musicians, but the violins themselves, and I gained a new appreciation for the history on that stage. And man oh man, there was a TON of history on that stage. There was history oozing from every corner, during every moment. The violins were all around 300 years old. They predate the original settlement that would eventually turn into Los Angeles by 50-60 years! There were violins that had “disappeared” for centuries before surfacing again. Violins that had been played by the violin masters of generations past. Violins that had traveled the world, again and again, decade after decade after decade.
And to compound the amount of history on hand, let me mention this: During the FiddleFest, these violins were the instruments that brought the music of 12 composers to life. Composers from all corners of the western world, some dating back 300 years to the time when these violins were crafted, to one that’s still alive today.
Every minute of every piece was a celebration of orchestral music’s illustrious and glorious past, and the five immensely talented violinists (Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint, and Xiang Yu) proceeded, again and again, to make it startlingly vibrant and alive. The stand-out pieces for me were the two Piazzola tangos (each of which featured 4 violins and Nico Abondolo on bass), which swelled and surged with passion, pride and overlapping rhythms. Chee-Yun captivated with her performance of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (accompanied by Jeffrey Kahane on piano), which built to a jaw-droppingly vigorous and exhilarating finale.
Most of the concert featured some, but not all, of the violins. Philippe Quint performed a soulful solo of music adapted from John Corigliano’s score from the movie The Red Violin. It appeared that Xiang Yu performed much of Franck’s Sonata in A major with his eyes closed, and Margaret Batjer was one of a few musicians who performed an entire piece (in her case, Brahms’ Scherzo in C minor) from memory, without a music stand. It was one impressive, superb performance after another!
It wasn’t until the finale of the concert that we got to hear all the violins at once. The piece was Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, and it certainly provided a bang to end the evening with. Each violinist had a section to themselves, accompanied by Kahane, and then they all joined in together for the final rousing, animated movement. The crowd jumped to their feet in a boisterous standing ovation. It was a concert 300 years in the making, and one that I won’t ever forget.