You could say the violin is the foundation of classical music. There are more violins in the modern symphony orchestra than any other instrument. String quartets use two of them. Piano trios depend on the instrument’s singing qualities to balance out the piano. Concerti for the instrument are some of the most famous pieces in the entire classical cannon. Soloists – from Isaac Stern to Paganini – have used the instrument to dazzle crowds and gather fame. While much of the chatter among classical music fans has focused on the Seattle Symphony this month, two concerts – both giving prominence to the violin – deserved more attention than they received.
Right after the New Year, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, led by local baroque violin virtuoso Ingrid Matthews, drew out a capacity crowd to Town Hall for their concert of wall-to-wall Vivaldi concerti. From my point of view, this was a gutsy decision. Even though Vivaldi’s place in the cannon is secure, some take issue with the composer’s vast output. He didn’t just write a lot of concerti – critics claim – but the same concerto for different instruments.
The numerous Vivaldi concerti Matthews and the other musicians played were never boring. The arrangement of pieces on the program masked Vivaldi’s knack for recycling ideas. A few concerti by Michel Corrette were sprinkled in to break up any remaining sameness. There were Vivaldi concerti for viola d’amore, violin, lute, therbo, cello, and the night’s curtain closer the concerto for four violins RV. 580.
Amidst Vivaldi’s brisk tempi, lean instrumentation, and the unusual — by modern standards — instruments used, the most remarkable performance of the night was given by Matthews. Matthews is not only one of the area’s finest violinists, but she is also one of the leading early music instrumentalists in the United States. A few years ago, the Seattle Weekly made a video of her and another violinist comparing a baroque violin with a modern violin. The construction of the violin’s body and the technique needed for bowing, make it harder to produce the large, full bodied sounds we are accustomed to hearing from modern violins. Yet, Matthews was able to fill Town Hall with inviting playing that at times enveloped the audience.
Matthews and three other violinists (Stephen Creswell, Tekla Cunningham, and Courtney Kuroda) ended the program with the concerto for four violins RV. 580. When this bubbling, energetic concerto ended, the sold-out crowd jumped to their feet giving Seattle Baroque Orchestra well deserved applause.
A few weeks later, the Bellevue Philharmonic, under the direction of music director Michael Miropolsky, took on two standards in the classical music repertory – Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. The soloist for the night was the Seattle Symphony’s Principal Second Violin Elisa Barston.
Stand partners in the SSO, Barston and Miropolsky work well together as violinists, and I gathered they probably would make good partners for the Bellevue Philharmonic performance also. Their familiarity with each other and the featured instrument was an advantage. Barston’s whispered phrases set the mood. The orchestra provided gauzy accompaniment perfect for the concerto. Later, Barston easily tossed off difficult passages, the orchestra kept up with her pace, and, Miropolsky held the whole thing together. I wish I could say Meydenbauer Theater is an excellent acoustic space, but it isn’t. It is the iPod of concert halls. Small and boxy, climaxes frayed and the overall acoustic of the auditorium was desiccated.
The space was especially problematic for Brahms’ symphony. At this point in the concert, the orchestra had lost the precision and cohesion they showed earlier in the afternoon. The orchestra’s fatigue which only compounded the problematic acoustics of the space. For the concerto, the dryness of the hall made Barston’s playing sound more incisive, similar to the same degree of detail Matthews coaxed from her own instrument a few weeks earlier.
The Bellevue Philharmonic has struggled for the past few years. Last year’s leadership shuffle put the orchestra’s future very much in doubt. But, with new leadership, the orchestra is on the rebound. Hopefully it will continue to provide a much needed orchestral presence for Bellevue. Seattle Baroque, on the other hand, continues to buttress Seattle’s early music scene with exciting instrumental performances.
The two violinists in these performances deserve the most credit. Matthews’ identity as a premiere baroque violinist is well deserved and firmly established. She is a Seattle icon. Barston, on the other hand, is a young, adventurous performer overflowing with talent. During the Joshua Roman years, many of the other young musicians with the SSO weren’t given the same degree of attention. With Roman gone, Barston has had more room to build her own identity and in time become an icon herself. The foundation of Seattle’s own classical music community will remain secure for years to come because Barston and Matthews’ talent.