Stravinsky Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks”
Debussy Images pour orchestre
Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Opus 77
When you hear Igor Stravinsky’s name, what comes to mind? For most, it would be the Rite of Spring, a revolutionary work that sparked a riot the night of its premiere. For others, the name may conjure up visions of Petrushka or the supernatural Firebird Suite. What is definitely not associated with Stravinsky is Johann Sebastian Bach, the master of fugue and counterpoint, whose groundbreaking musicality was deeply rooted in the German Baroque tradition. That is, unless you know the story behind Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat for chamber orchestra.
This work was commissioned for the 30th wedding anniversary of Robert and Mildred. Bliss, owners of Dumbarton Oaks estate, the estate after which Stravinsky’s work was named. Envisioned as a modern version of the concerto grosso and written in the fast-slow-fast sequence, the overall arc is reminiscent of Baroque form. The scoring in the strings, as well as the opening movement, plainly suggests Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and even Stravinsky himself admitted to drawing inspiration from Bach’s music. Though many of his works were influenced by older and foreign styles, Stravinsky still composed through his modern 20th century lens, bringing fresh dissonance and polyphony to this chamber piece.
With a single row of seated strings and a few wind players in the back, the stage seemed oddly empty. But in its fourth performance of Dumbarton Oaks, the BSO was up more than up to the challenge of tackling Stravinsky’s concerto for chamber orchestra. The sharp attack of each unpredictable accent accentuated the crispness of the first movement. Every player seemed both a soloist and a chamber musician, their sounds all distinct to the discriminating ear but intermingling in the most impeccable way.
Next was Debussy’s Images pour orchestre, a set of three works, each drawing from music of a different country: Gigues from English folk songs, including “The Keel Row”; Ibéria from Spanish music, such as Bizet’s Carmen; and Rondes de printemps from popular French children’s songs. Imagine a collection of three picture-perfect postcards — the first of rolling Northumberland moors, the second of rural Spain, and the third of the idyllic countryside of Debussy’s native France. The BSO under the baton of Dutoit delivered the joie de vivre encapsulated in these images. Whether it was the sneaking tremolo in the viola section, the dialogue of glissandos between the violinists, or the impassioned theme played on the oboe d’amore in Gigues, Images gave the imaginative listener a tour of the Europe Debussy knew.
When Charles Dutoit returned to the stage, this time with violinist Julia Fischer, the highlight of the afternoon began. Professionalism, along with freedom of movement and expression, was the theme for Fischer, as always.
Written through a lengthy back-and-forth collaboration between Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim, the Violin Concerto in D, Opus 77 begins with an orchestral exposition. The theme starts in the low strings, bassoons, and horns, ebbing and flowing with a deceptive calm. With a look of imperturbable tranquility, Fischer chose to keep her hands by her waist and crossed at the wrist, holding this position for the full tutti introduction.
In no time, the music thickened, leading to the dramatic entrance of the solo violinist at around the three-minute mark. Fischer’s calm was swiftly broken with her much-anticipated first note, a ringing D, followed by explosive arpeggios, scaling the heights with quick runs and wide-reaching chords. The first movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto is longer than the latter two combined — it was a marathon that Fischer finished with great stamina.
After a long breath, the Adagio began. Whereas in the first movement Fischer wowed the audience with her virtuosity, it was here in the slow middle movement where the absolute control she had over her bow shone through. Nonetheless, what I had been waiting for was the ecstatic éclat of pure joy, when, with the first variation of the Rondo theme, Fischer’s sound finally opened up to the heavens. The rest was a strong race to the finish, brimming with double stops and wild passages that ran the full gamut of her Guadagnini.
Her display of violin acrobatics didn’t stop there — returning to the stage to play an encore, she treated us to the famed Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, a piece widely feared among violinists as one of the most difficult solo pieces ever written for the instrument. Calling upon a wide variety of advanced techniques, including rapid left-hand pizzicato and parallel octaves, the caprice is always a showstopper when played well.
As if the music wasn’t demanding enough, within first few variations, a strand of horsehair on Fischer’s bow snapped in half. Compensating with her years of performance experience, she acted as if she hadn’t even noticed. But the real test would come in the devilish ninth variation, featuring lightning-fast alternating right- and left-hand pizzicato. Even with half a strand of bow hair dangling between her fingers and the strings, her concentration never broke and she passed with flying colors. All around, a concert well worth missing an 18.03 lecture.