A “Play by Play” of a New York Premiere
Today Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin and I are performing Paul Schoenfield’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in its New York Premiere performance in the wonderfully improved Alice Tully Hall. The program includes the Brahms Horn Trio with our esteemed horn colleague, William “Bill” VerMeulen. The Sonata is a New York premiere, but not quite the World Premiere – that honor went to the La Jolla Summerfest last August. The Sonata is the result of a joint premiering program by the LaJolla Summerfest and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
So which would be the better performance to attend? The World Premiere, with its freshness bursting from the players, or the New York Premiere, eight months longer in the tooth, but with a notch of experience on the belt?
They both have their merits, but I have to say that I vote for the latter. When we played the Sonata in La Jolla last summer, we were both swamped with notes to learn, styles to assimilate, and rapid changes of mood, texture, etc. Also, this isn’t exactly the Paul Schoenfield who wrote the openly engaging “Café Music” some decades ago. This is different, and more challenging, and ultimately more rewarding, for both performer and listener. The La Jolla performance went very well, but Jimmy Lin and I both felt that we could do a little better. On the other hand, Schoenfield’s Sonata had real context in La Jolla, appearing on a program with new works by George Tsontakis and Stewart Copeland. Here in New York it shares the bill with Dvorak, Schumann and Brahms.
When I say that this work has “rapid changes”, this is what I mean: the first movement, “Vanishing Point” is inspired by the eponymous novel of David Markson. The novel presents sound bites of text, sourced from a variety of places, in a dizzying rate of change. With patience, this all gradually begins to make sense. Paul says that he loved this novel. I tried reading it, and couldn’t get through it.
When the score arrived for ‘Vanishing Point’, I started to see the sourcing: there’s an early excerpt from the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, for example. But it’s not by any means an exact quote. The shape and rhythm are the same, but the notes are wildly, provocatively, different. I asked Paul by e-mail if he could identify all of the “quotes” for me, and he replied:
“On the first page there are clips from Schoenberg’s Op. 23, Webern’s Op. 5, and the early 20th century tune, ‘Better Think Twice.’ Then comes the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, Zez Confrey’s ‘Dizzy Fingers’, a Chopin Waltz, ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, Liszt 1st piano concerto, Schubert G Major Sonata, Liszt ‘Funerailles’, ‘O My Darlin’ Clementine’, Strauss ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, 4th Beethoven Piano Concerto, ‘Yes, Yes, My Baby Said Yes, Yes’, and a Hebrew song based on a text from the Talmud.”
I recall vividly playing the sonata for Paul in La Jolla and expressing my bewilderment with the 2nd movement. “You’re playing it much too loud,” he said. “It’s a violin solo with faint accompaniment.” We try again. “Still too loud,” was the response. After a third time he clarifies. “You know that whispery sound that your teacher at Juilliard never let you make, because it didn’t project? That’s the sound that I want!” Case solved. It’s a hauntingly beautiful movement.
The 3rd movement, a Romance, based on a tune Paul says he wrote many years ago, sounds like fresh air, and has a gentle, lilting quality. The 4th movement finale, a traditional Jewish dance called “Freilach”, has Jimmy Lin and I in a state of nerves. It’s fast, furious, and feels as though we’re subway surfing. One false move from either of us, and we would be off the rails…
Here we are backstage at Tully, on a lovely New York Sunday at 5:00pm, beginning the program with the naïve Dvorak Sonatina. I motion for Jimmy to walk onstage first, but in the gentlemanly manner that I’ve always associated with Jimmy, he insists that I walk onstage first, and with a smile says “Welcome to the Chamber Music Society” as I walk out.
The Dvorak is a perfect program opener: simple and open in emotion, technically reasonable, and filled with joy. Following this, Bill VerMeulen and I play the Schumann Adagio and Allegro. Here’s a work that makes grown horn players tremble. It requires boatloads of control in the opening Adagio, and the virtuosity of a coloratura soprano in the Allegro. Bill plays it as I’ve never heard it – with velvety sound, total control, and sweeping phrases. It’s a triumph.
Now Jimmy and I are steeling ourselves for the Shoenfield Sonata. I’m aware of what a shock the Shoenberg-inspired opening will be after Dvorak and Schumann. Jimmy leans forward and crouches, preparing me for the cue that opens the piece, and readying himself to spring into action.
We’re off! A 3/4 time signature immediately gives way to 2/4. 2/4 + 5/16, 4/4, then 7/8, all within less than ten seconds. The tempo changes, the style morphs, and it seems to be going by at lightning speed. There are a few brief moments in this movement where I am meant to sound like a bar pianist – I love those bits – and a few places where I really can’t quite play all the notes as printed. (Paul graciously offered that the gestures were more important than the actual notes in those passages. I’m trying not to let that comment allow any actual irresponsibility on my part.) The 1st movement finishes with a daring run to the upper ends of the violin and piano, and…we end together!
In the 2nd movement I am dutifully whispery. It actually works. Jimmy is playing with extraordinary depth of feeling. In the midst of the performance, I am finally getting this movement.
The 3rd continues to be a gentle relief. I feel that we’re gently rocking and swaying, and actually remembering to breathe.
Once we get to the finale, I’m getting tense again. The beginning creates the most extraordinary Jewish atmosphere, like a Hebrew version of Debussy’s “Engulfed Cathedral” except that it’s an engulfed synagogue. But unlike the hazily relaxed Debussy, this is relentlessly fast. With each expertly turned page (thank you, Noriko!) I quickly scan what’s coming and realize that whatever it is, it’s going to be harder than the last two pages. But a wonderful thing happens. I’m counting less, and starting to just feel the beats, feel the phrases, feel the music. It’s a roller coaster, to be sure, but I’ve ridden enough times to know which curves are coming next.
We finish, grateful to have survived, and an appreciative audience helps us welcome Paul Schoenfield to the stage. Jimmy and I are spent, and jubilant.
We’re not quite done. Bill VerMeulen joins us onstage for the Brahms Horn Trio on the second half. In any other program, this would have been the hardest work by far. Today it feels relaxed, almost light in spirit. We also love playing together; all three of us are Professors at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, so I’m hopeful that our collegial spirit is obvious. (Note to pianists: the last movement really is playable, but only if you memorize it…!)
Click here to see the New York Times Review of this concert.