Portland Ovations is batting 1000 in its selection of solo performers this year. First it was pianist Alexandre Tharaud, in a recital that can only be called transcendental. Wednesday night it was violinist Ray Chen and his collaborator (one cannot call him an accompanist), pianist Julio Elizalde, in another performance of a Beethoven sonata that was revelatory.
Ever since the decline of vinyl and the disappearance of blockbuster recording companies, who kept their stars in the public eye, it has been harder to attract large crowds to solo performances. Today’s artists, if not as well known, are the equal of and sometimes superior to Van Cliburn or Itzhak Perlman.
I mention this because Hannaford Hall had far too many empty seats for a concert that should have been standing room only. The weather may have had something to do with it, but so did the lack of the large publicity budgets that once benefited such stars.
Tickets to Ray Chen were $42, with special discounts for people over 65 and to members of Portland Ovations. Children and students paid $10. Nothing remotely similar is available at these prices.
Wednesday night’s program was changed from the original for a variety of reasons, including that Chen was sick with what seemed to be either the flu or a very bad cold. But Chen, whom Maine audiences first heard at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, plays better sick than most violinists at their peak.
He warmed up with the Schubert Rondo in B Minor (D. 895), which I unfortunately missed, and then launched into a series of popular virtuoso pieces by Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), that used to be the stock in trade of Jascha Heifetz. They are insanely difficult, especially the final “Zigeunerweisen” (Op. 20), but Chen and Elizalde transformed them into memorable music. I particularly liked the way Elizalde watched and listened carefully to what Chen was up to, then aided and abetted.
The final Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 9 (“Kreutzer”) proved that Tolstoy didn’t know very much about music. His short novel “The Kreutzer Sonata” is supposed to illustrate the damage done to morals by music-making. If his protagonists could play that score well, they would have been more interested in music than illicit romance. And the required collaboration is considerably more profound than adultery.
As Elizalde explained, the “Kreutzer” is an unusual piece, named for someone Beethoven hardly knew, after a row with the original dedicatee, an Afro-European violinist named Bridgetower. It is a violin sonata, but the piano part is prominent. Beethoven thought of it as a piano sonata with violin obligato, in the style of a concerto.
The piano and violin play can-you-top-this in the first movement, which is followed by a series of highly inventive variations that raise a nondescript little theme to mountainous heights.
The final movement is fast and boisterous, with a catchy theme that influenced more than one of Beethoven successors. I have never heard a version of the “Kreutzer” as good as this one. Both Chen and Elizalde obviously love the music for itself, rather than a vehicle for display.
Portland Ovations must be trying to cure my dislike for encores. Chen played John Williams’ music from “Schindler’s List,” which was so sad, darkly Romantic and melodic that it almost made one forget Beethoven. Almost, but not quite.
WHAT: Ray Chen, violin, presented by Portland Ovations
WHERE: Hannaford Hall, University of Southern Maine, Portland
WHEN: Feb. 4