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The American Music Festival hosted a concert by Eric Pritchard, first violin of the Ciompi Quartet since 1995, and Barbara McKenzie, a local pianist trained at the Peabody Conservatory (Bachelors/Masters) who makes music mostly in the Wilmington area.
They opened the program in The History Place's Les A. Ewen Auditorium with Beethoven's Violin Sonata in F, Op. 24("Spring"). Both performers played with unfailing precision and clarity. Pritchard's violin tone is beautiful. McKenzie's deft playing was not helped at all by the big ole ugly sound of a small modern grand piano. It's not that there was anything particularly wrong with this specific piano. What the piano has become since Beethoven is just not a pleasant sound. In the second movement Pritchard displayed the gentlest of violin vibrato. Such a beautiful control and use of vibrato took a lot of study to perfect; the skill with which it was applied to the music shows not only skill but taste as well. The two displayed perfect communion in the trill-like passages. In the third movement Beethoven sets a duel between the two instruments; in this performance both instruments won! The fourth movement was characterized by the huge difference between the melody as intoned by the equal-temperament piano and by Pritchard's more flexible violin intonation. Both Pritchard and McKenzie were largely flawless and highly idiosyncratic, with very pointed drive.
The audience found the performance of compositions by Bill Robinson, with the composer himself present, the high point of the evening. Pritchard and McKenzie performed the middle or "inwards" movement of Robinson's Govinda Sonata; he explained that "Govinda" is another name of Krishna. Robinson is lucky to have two such skillful devotees. According to Robinson, this sonata was originally written for flute, rather than violin, and piano. Its instrumentation could well be expanded to include a tom tom. The high piano notes were like driving masonry nails into mortar. This was a high-quality modern piano, and McKenzie depressed the keys with consummate skill; it still sounded like hammering nails. Pritchard enriched the piece with his precise double stopping and some interesting portamento.
Continuing with another work by Robinson, Pritchard next performed Sonata 11 for unaccompanied violin written in 2003. Robinson has composed a number of random movements representing various hexagrams of the I Ching. The performer is free to choose movements and combine them in any order to make a sonata. I found the first, "Moderate," surprisingly accessible and interesting. The second, "Sprightly," is a jumping piece. Pritchard's body language contributed a great deal of interest. As Kirkpatrick said about Scarlatti's sonatas of the "hand-crossing" period, hearing a recording of this movement would not have been nearly as interesting as seeing it performed. The auditorium, a musically-good space created in a former storefront-type space, is without windows and focuses the audience inward. There is no hint of the beach and surf or the bronze bodies and the non-intellectual pastimes that dominate the area during the summer. A lot of the audience seemed to find this intellectual intensity very interesting. The third movement ("Slow") was carefully spun out like drawing silver wire. The concluding "Ho Dao" (a really bad pun) is highly rhythmic with lots of double and triple stopping.
The devil was in the details at intermission. The annual fund-raising silent auction was underway and made intermission run long. When it was finally decided to blink the lights, something was re-set wrong with the light over Pritchard's music and he had to ask twice from the stage for more light before he could begin.
The last part of the concert was Fauré's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A, Op. 13. The first movement, Allegro Molto, begins with a lush piano introduction; the whole sonata is highly symphonic. The second movement, Andante, was performed in a very successful way that was delicate and dark. The final Allegro quasi Presto just went zipping right along under Pritchard and McKenzie ministrations. Fauré provided plenty of very intense writing in the expectation that a captive audience would sit still through it. Both performers were well up to the challenge of the intensity. This movement was lightened by a lot of pizzicato, along with harp-like piano runs. The violin does not have to take a breath; just as well, as Fauré never gives it a chance to take a breath.
Eric Pritchard and Barbara McKenzie play very well together. The board members and officers of the series are especially gracious and seem determined to make this little series a real gem. I look forward to hearing more in Morehead City; remaining concerts this season are listed here.