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REVIEW: Midori masterfully plays Bach’s solo violin music for La Jolla Music Society

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog

April 24, 2023


On Thursday and Friday evening at Baker-Baum Concert Hall, the La Jolla Music Society presented violinist Midori in the six Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. Interleaved into these masterly performances were solo violin works by Thierry Escaich, Annie Gosfield, Jessie Montgomery, and John Zorn.

There’s a trend over the past decade or two to juxtapose Bach’s solo string music with modern works, which is part of a larger trend across the classical field to commission composers to create a companion work to a much-loved masterpiece. For Midori’s concerts, the one contemporary work that directly reacted to a Bach piece on the same program was Gosfield’s “Long Waves and Random Pulses.”

“Long Waves and Random Pulses” imagines a World War II-era radio performance of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita no. 2 in B minor being jammed by German, Italian, and Soviet electronic signals. It coexists as a duet between a live violinist and recordings of jamming signals and as a solo violin piece. Midori played the latter version, nimbly duplicating the shimmering modulations and fuzzy distortions of the electronic signals, with bits of Bach poking through.

Many of Gosfield’s works evoke 1940s/’50s retro American kitsch, reinforced in Gosfield’s live performances by her film-noir updo hairstyle. We don’t encounter her singular music enough here, and that’s a shame.

French composer Escaich was new to me. His “Nun komm” was based on a Bach chorale that he tweaked with an octatonic scale, a brief jittery contraption that geared up, furiously spun around, and mysteriously dwindled away. About 30 seconds in, a loud pop issued from Midori’s hitherto purring violin, causing her to stop and retune. It was the only snag in both concerts. She quickly restarted and pulled us through Escaich’s little whirlwind of a piece.

Rhapsody No. 1 by Jessie Montgomery seemed to owe the least to Bach’s music. Modally centered on F, it adroitly uses two and three part voicings. Its slowly varying melodic development struck me as a throwback to Roy Harris. It’s easy to hear why Montgomery’s music is so popular with classical musicians these days.

John Zorn has emerged as the Grand Old Man of what used to be called Downtown music. Not beholden to theories, with omnivorous musical tastes, equally at home in concert music and improvisation, Zorn is one of the key American composers of his generation, yet his concert music has not really found its way into programming — at least here in San Diego.

His “Passagen” is based on the B-A-C-H motif. Written in a largely dissonant idiom, it provides brief, elusive glimpses of the Bach Sonatas, Bartók, Paganini, and Elliott Carter. Sometimes it loudly ground away on crunchy tremolos. Other times it lingered on barely-speaking harmonics, pitch deteriorating into noise. It was an arresting work which provided a contrasting bridge from the dizzy final dance of Bach’s Partita no. 1 in B minor to the joyous Preludio of Bach’s Partita no. 3 in E major.

Any living composer would admire the careful stewardship that Midori gave their works. Her Bach performances were ingratiating in their musicality and dazzling in their easy virtuosity.

Many violinists treat Bach’s solo work as sacred masterpieces that audiences must worship. Their double and triple stops announce, “THIS IS GREAT MUSIC!”

Midori never belabors that point. She quietly plays, draws us in, allows us to be charmed or impressed. She never proselytizes, but simply devotes all of her technique and insights into her gentle but powerfully persuasive renditions. It was a supreme joy to experience her two concerts.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.