Any fantasy you can think of has multiple dimensions to it; this is especially true in Vijay Iyer’s Bridgetower Phantasy, which premiered in Philadelphia performed by violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner as part of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s recital season. The March 21 concert at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater featuring the new Iyer work was bookended by two Beethoven violin sonatas, including the Kreutzer sonata. Iyer’s piece is titled after the Afro-European violinist to whom Beethoven dedicated his Kreutzer sonata, suggesting that Iyer sees this work as a response and a companion piece to Beethoven’s sonata. These historical and musical resonances made for a compelling program that brought together old and new.
A sensitive take on Beethoven from violinist Jennifer Koh
Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in D Major begins very calmly in unison with a vibrant feel throughout its three movements. The gaiety displayed in this sonata is in stark contrast to Beethoven’s real life as he was experiencing the initial signs of deafness during this period. This sonata was dedicated to one of Beethoven’s beloved teachers, Italian composer Antonio Salieri. For those of you who are fans of 1984’s Amadeus and recognized this name, Salieri was the central character in the film adaptation of the play that painted him as a rival to the impossibly brilliant Mozart.
In this sonata, Koh comes across right away as a sensitive player. Sensitivity can be difficult to measure; it can feel overdone or ring false. This is not the case with Koh, who has clearly thought deeply about what Beethoven wished to convey through the violin’s voice. The technically superlative Wosner’s intelligent playing made for an engaging pair with Koh.
From Beethoven to Bach and back again
What struck me about the other Beethoven sonata on the program–Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A Major (“Kreutzer”)–was the influence it gathered from Bach’s violin writing (it was actually Bach’s birthday on this very day!), which was clear in the 1st movement’s solo violin lines in both the structure and harmonic relationship with the piano. Also, this sonata did something unheard of its day–it had contained presto movements (briskly fast). In the Classical period, the standard movement structure was three movements that would follow in the order of something like allegro moderato, andante, and presto. So as you see, two presto movements in one sonata at that time were pretty extraordinary.
Vijay Iyer pays homage to overlooked Afro-European violinist George Bridgetower
Going back to Iyer’s Bridgetower Phantasy, the Grammy-nominated jazz pianist and composer’s approach to the phantasy has mystical harmonics, scratchy sounds used for effect, and passages that display intense vigor and sensitivity. Underneath these musical gearshifts, it felt like Koh and Wosner were improvising on the spot. Given Iyer’s renowned improvisational background, this comes at no surprise.
All of these elements seek to convey something about the figure of George Bridgetower, an Afro-European violin virtuoso that impressed Beethoven so much that he dedicated the Kreutzer sonata to him. This dedication was later rescinded when Bridgetower insulted a friend dear to Beethoven. Regardless of the falling out between the two, the bond they once shared lives on through Iyer’s intricate work.
Finally, I want to cherish the fact that the greatest composer of his era was once a friend and supporter of an African musician. This was a time when his African brothers and sisters were in the thick of the unspeakably gruesome slavery system in America. Music really must be the most inclusive language we have.
For more information on the remainder of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s 2016-17 season (and their recently announced 2017-18 season while you’re at it), visit their website.