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Verbal Questions, Musical Replies

New York
W.M.P. Concert Hall
11/16/2011 -  
Gil Morgenstern Reflection Series
Johann Sebastian Bach: Adagio and Fugue from the G Minor Sonata for Solo Violin, BWV 1001
György Kurtág: Hommage à J.S. Bach – Im Volkston – Carenz Jig
Lukas Foss: Early Song and Composer’s Holiday from Three American Pieces
Anton Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Opus 7
Johannes Brahms: Sonata Number 3 for Violin and Piano in D Minor, Opus 108

Gil Morgenstern (Violin and Interlocutor), Benjamin Hochman (Pianist)

Artists in WMP Concert Hall (© Coco T. Dawg)

Historically set between 17th Century Ducal palazzos, where musicians were surrounded by Titian paintings and Cellini goblets, and 21st Century stadia and halls, where every tone is regulated to the umpteenth correct vibe, lies the salon-concert hall. W.M.P. Concert Hall, to which I was introduced last night, is one of New York’s most lovely.

The most ornate is Weill Recital Hall, with its creamy Baroque decorations. But W.M.P. can beat them on two accounts. First, the vestibule, inside an unprepossessing portal on east 28th Street, is packed with violins and cellos, autographed pictures of virtuosi, historical photos from the late 19th Century. Obviously, this is a string-instrument workshop.

Second, past the gilded mirrors and Parisian chandeliers, are seats for about 70 listeners. In front is a stage with a wooden shell for optimal acoustics–and a 7’4” Bösendorfer concert grand piano.

Now, to some pianists, the relationship of Bösendorfer to Steinway is between Beluga and Esturia. One is excellent, the other has no adjectives to describe its effect. I am not one to judge, but Franz Liszt played nothing else when performing for the Austrian Emperor.

G. Morgenstern (© Wendy Stulberg)

The pianist last night was the fine Israeli Benjamin Hochman, but the main honors went to that always fascinating violinist Gil Morgenstern. Yes, he is one of the most technically adept and tasteful violinists playing today. But equally fascinating because, while not associated exclusively with any period, Mr. Morgenstern has programs which are of special interest, even if the pieces on paper don’t seem to go together.

Last night was an example of his work. Nine out of the ten works played were less than nine minutes in duration. (I approximate this, not having a watch.) But these were not at all encore works, lollipops. In fact, as the violinist explained before each set of works, they all asked questions. About personality, style and era.

Why, for instance, does one put Webern with Bach on the same program? Mr. Morgenstern speaks of their same attention to detail, to the same incredible technique required.

“But if Bach, had he written in 1908, like the Webern’s Five Pieces, would he have shortened his 100 measures down to nine measures?”

Or one takes the treatment of folk song by Lukas Foss (born in Germany, but very much, when necessary, part of the American musical movement) and by György Kurtág (born in Rumania, but in the Hungarian section of Rumania), with his emphasis on both folk songs.

Mr. Morgenstern played all this music with an elan that is difficult to hear in full-size concert hall. His thrilling tone, his brilliant four-string playing in the Bach, his sense of harmonics and trills... In a salon like W.M.P. there is not room for a single error. It would resonate and be remembered like an actor falling off a stage.

But Mr. Morgenstern is too fine a musician to make those errors in such an intimate space. Perhaps in his larger concert halls he could take chances. Here, he was demonstrating the art of great style, great technique and (while I have never met him), obviously great personality as well.

The final work was the least “complex” work of all, Brahms’ Third Sonata. One could say that here we didn’t need to worry about harmonics and Webernian equations. Yet that was anything but true. So masterful is Mr. Morgenstern that the Brahms had a unique majesty. One senses that the irascible old composer himself would sit up and take very favorable notice.

Harry Rolnick



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