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REVIEW: Despite unexpected onstage pairing, violinist and pianist play like they’ve collaborated for years

San Diego Union-Tribune

Lukas Shulze

February 1, 2023


Violinist Johan Dalene and pianist Sahun Sam Hong soared together through La Jolla Music Society’s Sunday concert program of Pärt, Grieg, Brahms and Ravel

There has been no shortage of offerings in the winter calendar of the La Jolla Music Society, and their fine programming continued Sunday afternoon with the most recent installment of the “Discovery Series.”

While these events are a chance to showcase emerging new talent, the concert given by violinist Johan Dalene and pianist Sahun Sam Hong gave attendees every reason to believe that these are names we’ll see again. Sam Hong was a late addition to the concert after visa difficulties prevented the appearance of Giorgi Gigashvili, but one wouldn’t have known it — the two musicians played as if they’d been together for years.

For example, their playing in Arvo Pärt’s massive, sustained chaconne “Fratres” was riveting throughout. Violinist Dalene was masterful in his ability to bring an individual drama to the different registers of his instrument through the changing articulations Pärt sets, voicing lines clearly through clusters of spectral harmonics and gently nudging pianissimo double-stops into motion. A long piano chorale that ends the piece was meditative and focused, somehow seeming to answer passages heard much earlier. The two created arcs of continuity over the course of the broad and changing landscape.

In the late 1990s, Lera Auerbach paid an homage to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” by composing several sets of preludes for different instruments. Dalene and Hong played three preludes (nos. 3, 4, and 8) from her 1999 set for violin and piano. These are surprising, mercurial miniatures, each of them tonal, and each just long enough to create a short dramatic vignette. Number 3, for example, begins as a child’s music box that becomes taken over by a sudden and dark brutality. Hong and Dalene rendered these scenes with great affective clarity and a striking maturity of pacing and combined instrumental color.

The duo were as impressive with larger works. Grieg’s “Violin Sonata No. 3” invites comparison to the sonatas of Brahms.; indeed, the two composers knew and respected each other, though it is worth noting that Grieg’s exploration in the genre predates Brahms’ efforts by a number of years. Grieg’s sonata is a lyrical and rambling work, always launching into new melodic ideas, never really arriving, driving unrelentingly forward.

The duo found a compelling unity in moods that change suddenly from majestic to melancholy. Grieg’s piece brings several challenges, first tasking the pianist with negotiating a role which, while technically difficult, is primarily accompanimental. Hong managed to remain just beneath the violin for the entire piece, playing with measured, sculpted control. For the violinist, the obligation is to bring an adult experience to the part; the piece demands a performer who has felt the emotions of the piece: longing, recollection, and regret. Dalene seemed to have a worldliness beyond his years, and performed the part with the knowing earnestness of a much older musician.

Brahms’ austere third violin sonata shows the same density as his other late chamber works—forms are compressed, with elided sections that serve multiple functions. Dalene and Hong were able to articulate the formal architecture through careful ensemble shaping of dynamics and rubato, and brought a single understanding to motives and their evolution. Hong allowed himself to be pulled gently along in the singing Adagio, and Dalene was effective as he varied his natural, expressive vibrato.

The faster, brief third movement features quick interplay between the two instruments and again, the deft, athletic movement between them made the fact that Hong was a substitute pianist all the more remarkable. The fourth movement is a quickly cycling series of texture types, from churning clouds of piano arpeggios beneath double-stops in the violin to declamatory unisons between the two instruments, and there was a thrilling sense of risk and trust as Hong and Dalene launched boldly into great melodic spans that covered the full range of each instrument.

Ravel’s 1923 Sonata is a perfect example of the cultural sensibilities of its day, blending a self-conscious lightness and frivolity with the late 19th and early 20th Century captivation (bordering on fetishization) with the sounds and images of non-western cultures one finds everywhere in music, visual arts, and fashions across Europe. Ravel was a master at aping popular musical tropes, and the pastiche of musical references, combined with dazzling instrumental writing, makes this work particularly difficult.

As before, the pair seemed to be old partners in the immediacy and intensity of their ensemble playing, pivoting between scenes of Ravel’s masquerade. Heavy, stumbling character-writing was quickly replaced by dazzling tremolos and fleeting passage-work, as the two combined to build the characters in the narrative. The slow movement, titled “Blues,” joins similar works by Stravinsky in tipping an almost-garish hat to African-American music. Hong and Dalene rode just at the edge of restraint, sustaining a neoclassical elegance through precise and detailed rhythmic unisons, and, in the violin, a silken tone and unfailing intonation.

Schulze is a freelance writer.