Warm applause greets Nicola Benedetti, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, as she takes the stage to introduce this first performance 2023’s exciting programme. She promises an extraordinary talent and that is exactly what we get on this sell-out show at the Queen’s Hall. The programme, featuring pieces by Sir James Macmillan, Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms, might seem a tad divergent but, as we are soon to discover, those composers are linked by a certain sense of community and attachment to the flickering highlights of folk history.
Boston-born violinist Stefan Jackiw, who made his debut with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra aged 14, is a true maverick, steeped in the mechanics of the classics but, as befits his youthful appearance, he approaches his instrument with a sparkling gusto and intense, lyrical confidence. The results are truly invigorating.
Orion Weiss commands the Steinway for Macmillan’s Before the Tryst, a sonata which weaves, bounds and punches in angular chunks. Piano and violin spar, sometimes fiercely, sometimes furtively, eventually revealing the threads of a traditional folk melody lurking amid the undergrowth of moods. Jackiw and his eighteenth-century violin are one, veering from playful and scampering, to hypnotic, almost hallucinogenic dawdles. He exploits his instrument’s clarity of tone, weaving from smooth high vibrato to dark, woody depths, while Weiss studies the keyboard intently as his fingers scurry in all directions. The energetic drama of the piece finally morphs into a tender, poignant folk-tune, which resolves into a single, haunting, harmonic chime. It’s a bravado performance of a challenging piece which is rewarded when, amid the feverish applause, the composer bounds from his seat in the theatre and heartily shakes the hand of both musicians.
For the next piece, piano and violin are joined by cello player Sterling Elliot to explore Piano Trio by Charles Ives. Sensing that we may not be so familiar with this US composer, from Danbury, Connecticut, Jackiw sets the scene by furnishing a few stories about Ives and his eccentric father, who submerged his son in the complexities of musical structure from an early age. One of his tricks was to sit Charles in the town square of and ask three marching bands to move toward him playing different songs, telling the boy to watch the faces and responses, because ‘pretty tunes won’t get you into heaven’.
Dad’s technique duly made its mark since the word ‘eccentric’ doesn’t begin to cover this utterly bonkers score which plunges through a dizzying mish-mash of half-remembered folk tunes, to ragtime, football chants, big band sounds, movie soundtracks, to jazz. Broken bow-hairs abound as the stringed instruments go head-to-head, at times tumbling across each other while playing similar refrains in different keys. Elsewhere, they swoop as one in a wash of lush harmony, only to fracture again and tumble into the pummelling, bruising chaos. It’s like Punk Rock for conservatoires. The composer, though, undoubtedly knew how to make a musician work. His piece rouses bracing performances from all three instrumentalists, who not only surge toward this test of their abilities, but raise the roof on the final chord.
A transforming experience for all.
With thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review.