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Return to the scene: Medalists in 2018 IVCI come back for a joint recital at Glick Indiana History Center

With the stress of competition removed for performers and audience alike, the top three players in last year's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis came back to the scene of their triumphs for a recital program Tuesday evening.

Winners of the bronze, silver, and gold medals in the 2018 IVCI presented mini-recitals, nicely balanced in length and idiom, at the Basile Theater of the Glick Indiana History Center. Chih-Yi Chen provided suitably conscientious partnership at the piano.

Captivating encore: Lin, Hokamura, and Hsu play Julian Milone's arrangement  of the 24th Paganini caprice.
Performance order adhered to how the three violinists finished in September, moving from third to first place. To open there was an unusual appetizer in weight and distinction: the magisterial Chaconne from J.S. Bach's Partita no. 2 in D minor, played by Risa Hokamura. The elaborate set of variations on a short repeated phrase has long been regarded as the summit of the solo violin repertoire.

The variation form poses an eternal question, especially when it comes to interpretation by a soloist. Should the variations sound like variously contrasting ways of handling the same material, so that a performance emphasizes how they reflect upon one another, as if each had its place in a broad mosaic or musical quilt? Or does that focus take second place to building an interpretive arc over the course of the form, so that the whole sequence has a kind of rhetorical solidity? In other words, is the Chaconne an exhibition or an argument?

However interesting it is to hear an illuminating display of the composer's variation ingenuity, I lean more toward performances of works in variation form that have narrative drive. In the Bach Chaconne, the string-crossing intensity of a couple of variations toward the end should be enough to raise chills along the spine— not because of their isolated glory but because they seem connected to the significance of what has gone on before and, especially, to the calm, concluding restatement of the original. Hokamura started the piece with the initial chords more broken than usual, a choice that signaled commitment to neither approach in particular. But it did herald a deliberate interpretation, emphasizing the reflective side of the music. Despite its technical assurance, it seemed a little too studied and episodic, even granted the attractive flow she imparted to the more tender variations.

She commanded good tempo fluctuation in Tchaikovsky's Valse-Scherzo, which showed a more personal sense of the music's meaning. She let the soaring melody in the middle glide nicely. And she made playful and precise the short, downward-skittering figures in the main theme. For the Ravel Tzigane, the unaccompanied introductory section that puts an authentic gypsy stamp on the work had the right air of spontaneity and barely restrained wildness. After the piano eentrance, the riotous atmosphere attained steadiness and verve that was expertly coordinated with the keyboard in the accelerating passages that bring the work to a powerful conclusion.

Such power rooted in folk music was a feature as well of silver medalist Luke Hsu's finale, Wieniawski's "Scherzo-tarantelle" in G minor, op. 16. A fleet display of any fiddler's technical chops, the work showed Hsu's to be of a high order, apart from such imbalances as blurry low figuration contrasted with abrupt high-register punctuation. To balance all the piece's demands at top speed is a continual challenge. But, even allowing for a final squeal of indeterminate pitch, Hsu's performance admirably indicated he knows just what a display piece is all about. Bravura to burn goes a long way in bringing off such music.

Still, there was perhaps too strong a sense in Hsu's stage manner of a man wrestling music to the mat and pinning it for the win. Fortunately, what we heard was usually more nuanced than what we saw. The Prokofiev Sonata No. 2 in D major, the one he wrote originally for flute and whose music retains some of that air-borne quality, was well thought-out and displayed Hsu's great feeling for tone. The tart fanfares of the first movement were brilliantly articulated, and the succeeding Presto confirmed the violinist's gift  for sharply defined rhythms. The Andante had the hummable quality one expects from the 20th-century classical music's finest tunesmith. The finale put Hsu's muscular approach to good use as the duo set the pulses racing.

Between the Prokofiev and Wieniawski, Hsu played the last two movements of Eugene Ysaye's Sonata in G minor for Solo Violin. The complex strands threaded among dizzying chains of 32nd and 64th notes were clear throughout the Allegretto poco Scherzoso, and the Finale con Brio was dramatic, trenchantly accented, and expansive.

After intermission came the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the gold-medal winning ways of Richard Lin.  The evening's most concentrated display of one composer came with Lin and Chen's performance of Edvard Grieg's Sonata No. 3 in C minor. I felt, as I did with what I heard of Lin during the competition, that he consistently imparted his personality to the music without burying it in himself. The playing was well-nigh perfect in pace and pitch, especially in the final measures of the warmly rendered second movement. His rapport with the pianist was airtight, especially in the finale, with its vivid contrasts of tempo and mood.

In Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen," an old chestnut that can be counted on to come through afresh when sensitively played, Lin delivered. He had finesse to spare in delineating every mercurial gesture in the first part, where the violin dominates. With the duo in lockstep in the fast concluding section, Lin conveyed the score's earthiness while keeping his tone pure. The piece's touches of glitter — its harmonics and left-hand pizzicati — were neatly tossed off. This was virtuoso playing that didn't stir the uneasy feeling that showing off was the extent of what the piece had to communicate.

The three prize fiddlers gathered onstage for an encore, delighting the near-capacity audience with an arrangement of the best-known Paganini Caprice for solo violin, the immortal No. 24. Distribution of its imperishable wonders was expertly managed by the three medalists. The marvelous arrangement is the work of London's Julian Milone, an old hand at stunning expansions of violin music for multiple strings. It was an ideal nightcap to this violin feast.

[Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]


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