Encores & Curtain Calls: Radiance and glory
“A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?”
— Albert Einstein
Perhaps it’s the perennial softening power of Christmas, perhaps purely wishful thinking or, just possibly, the compelling truth within them that urges me, in the spirit of the season, to share the heartfelt words of Friar Giovanni Giocondo in a poignant letter of encouragement to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi on the Christmas eve of 1513. His words are, if anything, more luminous now than upon the night that he wrote them.
Brother Giovanni walked the earth between the years 1433 and 1515 and was a Renaissance pioneer, accomplished architect, engineer, antiquary, archaeologist, classical scholar and Franciscan friar. We would do well to take his insights as a genuine gift, even if the planet has orbited the sun 500 times since he gave voice to them:
“I salute you. I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant.
“Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!
“Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.
“Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.
“Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.”
What, you may ask, has all this to do with music?
Everything! It is not by luck but by design that we in western New England are so graced. Beyond its breathtaking natural beauties and consoling cultural traditions, our region is virtually rife with musical artistry at every turn and on Saturday, Dec. 14, another wonderful opportunity presents itself when the Brattleboro Music Center Chamber Series presents the young Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova in a stand-alone Bach-Ysaye concert, 7:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro, Vt.
On the program are Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001, Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 and Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, and Eugene Ysaye’s Sonata No. 2 (“Obsession”) and Sonata No. 6 ( “Manuel Quiroga” ).
Now, in all candor, were I a young, even brilliant violinist, as Hristova is well hailed to be, I would in all likelihood still not opt to confront my good patrons with a bare-bones, no-holds-barred unaccompanied violin marathon in a first outing; it’s just a bit risky.
But, to be fair, it is a testament to both her confidence, her commitment to quality and her faith in her listeners that she has so chosen. Unaccompanied violin, cello and other single-line instruments, while capable of harmonic infrastructures through various devices, are clearly a more demanding kettle of fish than say, unaccompanied piano, classical guitar, harp or even unaccompanied harmonica.
In fact, the truth is one never hears the terms “unaccompanied piano” or “unaccompanied guitar” because they provide their own accompaniments as needed, softening and cushioning the laser-like purity of their melodic engraving with underlying colors and chordal textures.
The violin and its string siblings can strike multiple sounds as well, but they are short lived and more impressionistic than literal and never do they linger like, say, the quivering echoes of a harp would. Thus, sound after sound, silence quickly swallows those infrastructures, leaving the ardent, lonely laser beam of the melodic line singing to itself like a lonely child playing with imaginary companions.
But, “Every sound she draws is superb” says the string journal The Strad and Hristova’s talent has been recently recognized with a prestigious 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grant, given to outstanding instrumentalists and based on excellence alone. Also, the Washington Post’s The Classical Beat has stated she is “a player of impressive power and control.”
There is also some resonance with Giovanni in the fact that Hristova is playing her recital on a 1655 Nicolò Amati violin. While Giovanni departed this world a good century prior to the appearance of Amati, the lyrical glow of Mediterranean genius is clearly in the air.
Of particular delight — at least for this writer-composer — will be one of Ysaye’s offerings, his “Obsession” sonata, in which various iconic violin masterpieces invade the fabric of his own music, rather like a composer’s confessional. Listen sharp for the “hauntings” by Bach when it comes ’round!
But let’s make doubly sure we really get the picture of this marvelously convoluted miracle: a 28-year-old Bulgarian virtuoso will be drawing forth all of the soul-penetrating, gut-wrenching sonorities of the world’s most adored German kapelmeister, vanished some 250 years now, on a fragile, relatively slight, exquisitely sculpted piece of wood, magically and mysteriously fashioned to endure the centuries in service of the Muses by a far longer vanished Italian wizard by the name of Amati.
And, we wonder whether there is a God!
While unable to speak with Hristova in time for the appearance of this week’s column, I was able to speak with one of her sponsors for the occasion, Doug Cox, a violin maker with a shop on Sunset Lake Road in Brattleboro:
DC: She’s a very lovely person; she’s been here at the Marlboro Festival the past several years, she has been a student of (violinist) Jaimie Laredo, who is a neighbor of ours here, and who has his main living place just south of here in Guilford, even though he’s away most of the year performing and teaching. She performed most recently in the area with the Vermont Symphony.
JM: Have you had a chance to witness her?
DC: Oh yes, she’s been in my studio several times when she was at Marlboro and the violin that she plays is one that I knew quite well when I was in Boston. It belonged to Louis Krazner, who was a patriarch of the violin world in Boston back in the ’60s and ’70s when I started working, so it’s wonderful that she has this instrument to play, a very nice Amati.
JM: So when you sponsor someone such as Bella, do you undertake all associated concert costs?
DC: No, I don’t know what the total costs are; the Brattleboro Music Center has a basic sponsorship fee, but it certainly helps to bring high-quality performers to this area.
JM: And, through your devotion to the instrument, you just feel that she would be a wonderful spokesperson for it?
DC: Yes, I’ve sponsored programs at the BMC in the chamber series most of the past several years. It’s wonderful to be in the position of being able to do that and part of the reason why I’m here in this area is because of the health and the vitality of the music world in general, and the classical world in particular, and the way that keeps going is by having the inspiration of great players like Bela.
JM: Now, she seems to be fearless, starting with a solo-solo program; is the Ysaye program unaccompanied as is the Bach?
DC: Yes, which actually rather surprised me, as you’ve noted. I think that is a rather bold and daring program to do. I know the Bach pieces very well, the Ysaye I know but not as intimately. Anyone whose life is significantly centered around the violin knows the Bach pieces. I think it’s a testament to the sophistication and seriousness of the community and the audience that we have here for her to do such a sophisticated and challenging program.
Bella Hristova will perform in Brattleboro, Vt., on Saturday, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St. To purchase concert tickets ($30, $20, $10), call the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523 or visit www.bmcvt.org.
Bella Hristova’s appearance is also sponsored by Vermont Public Radio.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.