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November 19, 2002

Vengerov charms Chicago

Maxim Vengerov, violin

Solo violin recital

Symphony Hall

Sunday, November 10

It has been a while since I have seen a musician feel so comfortable on stage. As he walked on stage with two bows, his Stradivarius violin and a microphone, Maxim Vengerov was clearly ready to have some fun - so much so that he wanted to share that feeling with the audience. "The first time I was on stage was when I was eight years old. I had only thirty minutes worth of music, but I just didn't want to leave that stage. My mother had to drag me off." I leave the hall after other concerts feeling an intense curiosity about the human inside the musician, who, however openly he might have played, still seems so cold and distant on the stage. I did not leave this concert that way. Vengerov's performance was filled with insights about his life and the music. He was absolutely charming, both as a musician and as a storyteller.

The program centered around Johann Sebastian Bach. Only the first of the six pieces performed, however, was written by Bach. Surprisingly, this piece, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, was the least memorable for me. The works of Shchedrin and Ysaye that followed combine influences from Bach with their own more modern ideas to create a new sound for the solo violin.

Ysaye's Second Sonata is an incredible piece. In the first movement, Ysaye inserts passages from Bach's work and then bursts forth with furious energy. Ysaye uses the technical mazes to transfer an amazing amount of his energy and passion to the performer and the listener. To play his music well requires musical maturity as well as technical genius. Vengerov certainly rose to the challenge. There are ample opportunities in the first movement to make long, dramatic pauses which, for many musicians, brings out the contrast between the baroque and contemporary (turn of the century) style. Vengerov just let it happen.

Shchedrin's Echo Sonata is a very unusual piece. Like Ysaye in his second sonata, Shchedrin quotes passages from Bach's solo violin repertoire. Perhaps the piece was meant, as the title and Bach quotations suggest, to "echo" the earlier tradition in a contemporary style. I think this idea worked effectively. Shchedrin uses some crazy technical effects. Towards the end of the piece, Vengerov actually used the peg of the G-string (the lowest) to extend the violin's register.

Both Ysaye and Shchedrin give the violin a technical challenge at every twist and turn. Listening to the Ysaye sonata for the billionth time, I still cannot believe that one single violin can do so many things at the same time and create so much sound on its own. And just when I thought Ysaye had pushed the limits of violin technique to the highest point, Shchedrin came up with something new. Between the pieces, Vengerov told a charming story about this sensation. "My grandmother has always liked to hear me play, and to hear my recordings. She is by no means a violin expert but nevertheless appreciates music. When she heard my recording of the Ysaye sonatas, she said, 'I like how the violin sounds, but I also like the orchestra.'" Symphony Hall is large but Vengerov filled it entirely with his sound.

Perhaps my favorite piece on the program was Ysaye's third violin sonata. It came at me like one torrent of energy. It is simply amazing how quickly Ysaye moves from the bottom of the violin's register to the top. Played with no pause between movements, the piece was over before I had realized what happened. Vengerov built the sound and energy to a level where I couldn't imagine it could get higher. I was shocked again.

The audience loved the concert and Vengerov played two encores. After playing the first, Bach's Adagio from the first sonata for solo violin, Vengerov decided to be a comedian. He came on stage with a chair, tossed it in front of him, and sat down. Then, after a short pause, he said, "I just want to talk to you." There was a large "awww" and a "oh, he's so cute" from behind me. I couldn't help but be slightly annoyed. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, but as Vengerov repeated for the fifth time, "I can't think of a single country I haven't been to," I felt my desire to like him as a person as well as a musician become more of an effort.

Before playing the second encore, Vengerov told another story. At a benefit concert in Somalia, he played for a group of kids who had just survived the war. He said he wanted to end with this piece because it had made them laugh. Holding the violin like a guitar and using both his left and right hand to pluck the strings, Vengerov played a silly but technical phenomenon, all the while relaxing in his chair.

For me, the concert was a success. The pieces on the program are incredibly challenging to master yet Vengerov played them with all his vigor and technical dexterity. His casual style and openness with the audience charmed me most of the time, and overall added another level of understanding to the pieces and his interpretation of them.