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The Jascha Heifetz Prize

Los Angeles
The Alex Theater, Glendale
02/14/2006 -  
J.S. Bach/J. Heifetz: Preludio
Franz Schubert: Sonatina Op.137, No.1 in D major
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Sonata Op.30, No.2 in C minor
Francis Poulenc: Sonata
Claude Debussy/J. Heifetz: Beau Soir
Sergei Prokofiev/J. Heifetz: March (The Love of Three Oranges)
Maurice Ravel: Tzigane

Min-Jin Kym (Violin)
Ian Brown (Piano)

The first Jascha Heifetz prizewinner, Min-Jim Kym, a young violinist based in London, celebrated with a debut recital at the Alex Theater in Glendale. The Jascha Heifetz Society is a non-profit educational organization devoted to the legacy of the 20th century’s greatest violinist. Founded by former students, friends, and associates of Heifetz himself, the Society boasts an honorary board that includes Ruggiero Ricci, Joseph Silverstein, Mehli Mehta, Herbert Blomstedt, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Igor Oistrakh. In the spirit of Heifetz’s own extremely high standards, the society spent six years searching for a performer singular enough to merit their recognition. The new award seeks an extremely unusual violinist, someone who has a technique and prowess as unique as Heifetz himself. So although both the prize and the violinist are new on the scene, the levels of expectation and curiosity were high.

The Alex Theater is an odd venue for classical music, but is frequented by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, as well as others. A restored art deco movie palace with a small stage and proscenium arch, the hall has a massive coved ceiling and a modern acoustic shell behind the performers. With fluted Doric columns, painted backdrops of Roman pines and cypresses, 1940s style “oriental” sculpted décor, and a faux night sky, the hall is ideal for period movies, but a little distracting for a violin recital. The sound in the front of the orchestra section was perfectly acceptable, but I would not want to sit beneath the extensive balcony. The large orchestra section was about one third full, with the classic immigrant audience that can only be found in L.A. The throng murmured in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Armenian, French, Spanish and even a little English. They were like the audience for the venerable Borodin Quartet last year at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, another antique Los Angeles concert hall in need of restoration. The Borodin Quartet concert was presented by a Russian émigré promoter and attracted mostly eastern Europeans, a group almost entirely distinct from a typical evening at Disney Hall.

In her introduction to the recital, Claire Hodgkins, a violinist and associate of Heifetz, and president of the Society, explained the late start. Apparently, the young Min-Jin Kym plays a Stradivarius but lacked proper shoes. So they were shopping and caught in traffic. The audience was impatient but charmed, and eager to witness the Heifetz imprimatur.

The Bach Preludio, arranged by Heifetz, made for a challenging beginning. Opening with this high-speed tour de force, the violin and piano were a little stiff, almost tripping over each other. By the end of the piece, the violinist felt more fluid, closing her eyes, trying to lose herself in the music. The next selection, a Schubert Sonatina, was lighter and more subtle, making it easier for them to listen to each other. In the light of Schubert’s “Trout-like” brightness, she began to seem gentle beyond her years. As the piano began the Andante movement, the musicians began to play together more organically. The violin began to sing. In the lower register, the full, sweeping bow was infinitely cantabile. By the third movement, they were completely in control of their idiom. The playful dialogue came in quick bites and snatches of melody, at times parallel and at times in counterpoint. In the final movement Allegro vivace, the ensemble playing was remarkable, now back and forth, now in unison.

In the Beethoven Sonata the opening piano was solid, restrained and confident. As the violin entered she was aggressively athletic but controlled, with beautiful intonation. She was ahead of the music now, engaging with it rather than struggling to master it. The two musicians seemed to merge with each other, self-assured in fortissimo, understated in pianissimo. Now I was beginning to understand why she won the Heifetz Prize. Her bow was beginning to shred, and she may have touched its wood to the wood of her violin. But her low notes were perfectly married to her high notes. She was completely at ease with Beethoven, stunningly so. Unfortunately, the audience clapped after the Allegro con brio first movement. As the Adagio cantabile opened, she seemed a young dancing gazelle. I wanted to stop judging and just watch her run and leap. In the slow, quiet passages of alternating ascending and descending arpeggios, they played with measured grace and depth. In the Scherzo she continued to shred her bow, demonstrating a meticulous control of volume and dynamics. In the Allegro Finale the two parts were flawlessly interwoven, first the piano, then the violin, then both together, then in reverse. The freshness of the youthful violin seemed to inspire the older pianist. A spirit took over her body; she was a different person from the smiling Chinese girl who took her bows.

At the intermission, my thoughts also took on their own life: “How spectacular is she, they asked?” The answer was not for me to say, just then. I don’t know how much one can really tell from one concert. The legacy of Jascha Heifetz is absolutely singular, in a sense almost alien to this world. Heifetz really was different from other violinists. Is she? I don’t know yet.

After the break she offered a suitably forceful attack to open the aggressive Poulenc Sonata, the music moving from strident, jarring modernity into light romantic song. The melody offered a warm severity, not quite dissonant but with romance pushed to the limit, a step beyond the Franck Sonata. With her eyes closed in song, Min-Jin Kym again seemed an otherworldly creature, as the music ended without resolving. In the startling impressionistic opening of the Debussy/Heifetz Beau Soir, both instruments were graceful, even haunting. As I thought, “Renaud Capuçon might be more expressive in this,” I realized that the Heifetz prize is a rich burden-- I was always asking myself, “Am I being carried away?” In the Debussy, she played with extreme, even wild force but never went out of bounds. The Prokofiev March was also impressive, with gypsy-like tonality and precise microtonal pianissimo changes that only Heifetz would have arranged. The Ravel Tzigane was totally absorbing, obliterating thought. In the arabesque passages, her appalling force and perfection were equaled by the piano. The pizzicati seemed to be more than one violinist could play. There was superb fragility in the heights; the raucous gypsy melody conjured a Chagall fiddler beneath the eye of a giant goat. I could hear why they chose her for this prize. She went out on a limb and pushed beyond virtuosity into musicality. And the pianist Ian Brown was her mate. I thought: “Can I understand this, can I write to this?” It didn’t matter.

The two encores were evanescent dreams, a Chanson D’amour and something perhaps by Sarasate, with whistle-like high notes and fragments of effortless, incredulous melody.

Thomas Aujero Small



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