Hsiao-Mei Ku gave a brilliant faculty recital in Duke's Nelson Music Room on the evening of October 20, accompanied by pianist Ray Kilburn, who paid us a most welcome visit from Muncie, Indiana - there are many music lovers who miss his permanent presence in our midst. As an opener, they chose Giuseppe Tartini's Sonata in G Minor, known as "Didone Abbandonata." The composer's "Devil's Trill" Sonata is probably his best-known work, but his 41 other violin sonatas are infrequently programmed. It was a pleasure to hear this one even if it did not have the spectacular effects of the famous piece; it was beautifully played and made a pleasantly calm opener for an evening that included some other devilishly difficult pieces and some real fireworks.
After making comments about the fiendish difficulty of playing Paganini's 24 Caprices for Violin Solo, Op. 1, and how in them the composer expanded and extended the techniques of violin playing to their limits and beyond, Ku played a selection of seven (Nos. 13, 21, 5, 11, 2, 15, and 24, in that order) making the task look really easy. The first of these is referred to as the "Devil's Laugh" because of the "Hahahaha"-like series of notes at its opening and elsewhere. She closed the first half of the program with three Fritz Kreisler chestnuts, linking that composer to the previous one in her comments as his century's equivalent spectacular virtuoso. They were "Schön Rosmarin," "Liebesleid," and "Liebesfreud."
Following the intermission, the audience was treated to a fine reading by the duo of Claude Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917). To bring the evening to a close, Ku fittingly chose two works by her contemporary compatriot composer Zheng Qiufeng (b.1931), whom she had met in June and who gave her three pieces at that time. From them, she chose "Si Nian" ("Longing for the Beautiful Past") and "Xi You" ("At the Fair"). They seemed to use traditional Chinese melodies set in a traditional Western classical music form, although whether they are true traditional melodies or original ones in that style, as were so many of Bartók's for example, was not clear. Although both were lovely, the second was particularly impressive, with its suggestion of fireworks. Perhaps Ku will add the third to her repertory for a future recital?
Ku used scores only for the two sonatas. Throughout the performance, she demonstrated excellent intonation and created a lovely and brilliant tone, and Kilburn matched her volume perfectly, even with the piano lid fully open, except for the pizzicati in the Debussy, which seemed overpowered. Nelson's acoustic is not an easy one to deal with. Their partnership was flawless. Unfortunately, the audience was not. There was applause after each of the Paganini Caprices, each of the Kreisler and Qiufeng pieces, and a near outburst after the first movement of the Debussy. The magic spell created by the precise and spectacular playing was thus broken all too often. In addition, there were a lot of comings and goings between the works. Ku and Kilburn deserved greater respect. This was somewhat compensated for, however, by extended applause at the end of the performance and what must have been a record for bouquets: two before intermission and a good eight or ten at the conclusion. The bare-bones printed program was acceptable because Ku filled the lacunae of notes about the works with verbal comments, but dates of composition should not have been omitted.