Randall Goosby is a tall, handsome young man who could easily be a model, but he wasn’t in La Jolla on Sunday afternoon to promote men’s wear.
He came to Baker-Baum Concert Hall to play Ravel and Beethoven violin sonatas for the La Jolla Music Society, whose Discovery Series does fine work presenting emerging talent to San Diego.
It was a homecoming of sorts for this Itzhak Perlman protégé, who was born in San Diego but raised in Jacksonville, Fla.
At the age of 13, he was the youngest contestant to win the Sphinx Concerto Competition, and his involvement with the Sphinx Organization introduced him to classical music by African American composers.
His debut CD on Decca, “Roots,” features music by composers of color, and on Sunday, he ended the first half of his recital with an engaging performance of one of those works, the Suite for Violin and Piano by William Grant Still.
Still’s music has been appearing on programs more frequently as of late; the San Diego Symphony performed his “Darker America” in January.
The three movements of Still’s Suite were each inspired by an African American sculpture. Still did not quote any existing music here, but rather created original melodies informed by blues, spirituals, and popular music. “African Dancer” is a vigorous dance. “Mother and Child” is a gorgeous slow movement, longer than the other two combined, that at times suggests an African-American lullaby. “Gamin” is a snappy concert fox trot that plays with expectations by changing up harmonic patterns.
Goosby had a focused stage presence, a calm confidence in his playing. That underscored Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A major, Opus 47, the “Kreutzer” Sonata. It’s a work that can sound histrionic — a legitimate way to perform it — and it’s usually played for drama. But in Goosby’s hands, it became an elegant ballet, a powerful but graceful work.
Goosby’s partner, Zhu Wang, was a fabulous pianist in his own right, best featured in the slow variation movement of Beethoven’s Sonata. His tone was marvelously liquid with an unfussy cantabile, the chords voiced with insight. From where I sat, it was difficult to see Wang’s hands, but the sudden fortissimos in the last movement of Beethoven were all the more startling because Wang did not appear to telegraph them. They just popped out, and then immediately went back to quiet, all of this done with convincing finesse.
The concert began with a performance of Lili Boulanger’s Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, pleasant bagatelles that partake of Debussy’s impressionistic harmonies. In between Boulanger and Still was Ravel’s Sonata in G for Violin and Piano, which spiced those impressionist harmonies with blue notes and the modernist device of two different keys sounding simultaneously. Ravel even went so far as to call the slow movement “Blues.” This isn’t Bessie Smith’s blues, but rather Ravel using superficial characteristics for his own purposes, akin to Debussy’s and Stravinsky’s treatment of ragtime.
Goosby and Wang played this difficult work with minimal apparent effort but maximum musicality. Their partnership is a magical symbiosis, and I hope they record and tour for many more years.
For an encore, they played Ponce’s “Estrellita,” a charmingly arranged by Heifetz, topping off the afternoon with still more grace and beauty.
Hertzog is a freelance writer.