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The viola gained prominence as a solo instrument in the twentieth century as composers turned to it for a dark, introspective sound, suitable for expressing the turbulent emotions of the century's events and problems. On Sunday afternoon, January 27, 2002, violist Jonathan Bagg and pianist Jane Hawkins presented a short survey of such works in Duke's Nelson Music Room. Bagg made a brief statement at the beginning of the hour-long concert about his desire to discover and present lesser-known works for the viola, the three on this program being among his favorites.
The duo opened the program with "Fantastic Variations on a theme from "Tristan," a 1961 work by American composer William Bergsma (1921-1994). This ten-minute piece is a study in troubled gloom, opening with repeated, doom-laden chords, moving through several sections of racing scales and ending in on a soulful, dying note. Throughout, the piano is given an intense, insistent role against more thoughtful meditations from the viola.
Here Bagg impressed with several sections of deep, broad tone, often played in wistful, vibrato-less lines. The final, long-held note, which slowly diminished into nothingness, was quite moving. Both Bagg and Hawkins displayed tremendous confidence and facility, as they did throughout the recital.
The second piece, by Mark Kuss, a Duke graduate and a student of Bergsma, was another ten-minute set of variations on a theme, this time from the song "My Favorite Things" from the musical, "The Sound of Music." While this could have been cutesy and light, the piece instead surprised with its serious exploration of various moods and rhythmic elements. The well-known melody was never fully there (at least not enough to hum along) thus focusing attention on the interaction of the two instruments. Hawkins had her hands full - literally - with many rolling chords, spidery runs at breakneck speeds, and nervous, repeating figures. Bagg easily fielded the sweet, lyrical sections, played in a high register with many hair-breadth stops, as well as the sharp chords of the dance rhythms. Kudos to Kuss for his assured composition of gratifying depth.
The last work on the program was Hindemith's final chamber work for viola, the Sonate from 1939. Hindemith was an excellent violist himself and wrote several other sonatas for the instrument. Bagg stated that, while some of the earlier sonatas get played more because they are more accessible on first hearing, this sonata stands as one of the greatest viola works of the 20th century.
Both players' commitment to this craggy piece was evident as they threw themselves into the intensity of the first movement. Hawkins' majestic tone and precise runs added great substance, supporting Bagg's transversal of the long viola lines. Hawkins was especially interesting to watch in the coolly jaunty second movement, her nimble fingers clearly articulating the alternately sparkling and spiky chords. The players ably built the tension of the movement's climax. Bagg produced prodigiously rich tones in the free-flowing third movement, especially in the lower register. The fourth movement brightened the mood with its light, glittery figures, nicely traded back and forth between piano and viola, leading to a satisfyingly grand ending.
Strangely, the piano has the more arresting part in the sonata and Hawkins made the most of every opportunity to display her rock-solid technique and range of dynamics. All this was done in a focused, no-nonsense way that was all about the music and never about the performer. Bagg's devotion to this piece came through in his sincerity and emotional connection. Occasionally, his tone in the mid-range thinned out and became a little edgy but this was more than compensated for with the mastery shown in the highest and lowest registers.
The performance of the Hindemith brought thunderous applause (as well as whistles and bravos). The large, appreciative audience (including a number of children and teenagers) obviously knew what they were there to hear and were wonderfully attentive throughout the challenging program. It was gratifying to see such support for modern and lesser-known material.