ArtsATL > Music > Review: Highlands Chamber Festival features Fain and Ransom performing works by Philip Glass

Review: Highlands Chamber Festival features Fain and Ransom performing works by Philip Glass

Violinist Tim Fain and pianist Will Ransom. (Photo by Mark Gresham)
Violinist Tim Fain and pianist Will Ransom. (Photo by Mark Gresham)
Violinist Tim Fain and pianist William Ransom. (Photo by Mark Gresham)

This past Friday evening, the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival presented violinist Tim Fain and pianist William Ransom, the festival’s artistic director and the Mary Emerson professor of piano at Emory University, in an early evening recital of almost-all-American music at the Highlands Performing Arts Center in North Carolina.

One of the most highly acclaimed modern violists, Fain typically performs both standard violin repertoire and music by interesting but approachable American composers. One of his more significant composer-performer relationships is with Philip Glass, who has written several piece for Fain, including two on this evening’s program: the “Chaconne” from Glass’ Partita for Solo Violin and “Pendulum.” Both were among the works by Glass performed by Fain and the composer in a joint concert last September at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

Of these Glass works, Fain and Ransom opened with “Pendulum,” a short, energetic bravura piece that was written to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010. Originally for piano trio, it was subsequently rearranged for violin and piano. The seven-minute piece made a good curtain raiser, from its slowly oscillating opening, through increasingly energized sections to a rousing ending. It served as a nice initial showcasing of Fain’s bright, up-front violin tone and technical acumen, his impressive bow arm in particular.

Aaron Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, which followed, showed an austere neoclassical character that fits somewhere in between the composer’s more setaceously modern works and his easily approachable Americana-influenced style. Its three movements ran the emotional gamut from contemplative to ebullient, although each ended quietly. There is an overall elegiac quality about the sonata, especially in the lyrical middle movement. The performers gave it a clear and compassionate reading.

The unaccompanied violin solo “Arches,” by Kevin Puts, concluded the concert’s first half. The title is obviated by the work’s symmetrical structure of three caprices with a pair of arias in between, as well as its scheme of key centers and archlike motifs that arise. Fain deftly navigated the music’s alternating characters, from the virtuosic to the lyrical. The piece seemed to garner the greatest interest and sparked discussions among professional musicians in the audience at intermission — including how to pronounce Puts

After intermission, Fain played another work by Glass, the Chaconne from his Partita for Solo Violin, that Glass wrote for Fain. When performed in context of the partita, the “Chaconne” is divided into two parts. But when performed as a stand-alone work, those parts are played together as one piece. That Glass owes some inspirational debt to the solo violin partitas of J. S. Bach is audible. Like “Pendulum,” the “Chaconne” is a work that Fain had performed in his Schwartz Center concert with Glass last year.

A shift in atmosphere took place as Fain and Ransom played transcriptions of three songs from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The triad of songs — “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere” and “America,” as arranged by Raimundo Penaforte — are elaborate and show off the violin. But otherwise, the arrangements substantively fall into the somewhat unsympathetic category of “ear candy,” though there are some clever elements here and there.

That is hardly unusual, as the practice of musical bonbons as a vehicle for a performer’s virtuosity goes back well into the 19th century, evidenced by the next piece on the program, “Souvenir d’Amérique” (1843) by Belgian composer and virtuoso violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. Subtitled “Variations burlesques sur Yankee Doodle,” Vieuxtemps wrote the variations on the popular American tune while on tour in the United States, and remarked how it seemed the favorite of American audiences who were less accustomed to more serious repertoire. As a showpiece, it did give ample room for Fain to flaunt his formidable technique.

For an encore, Fain and Ransom opted for the lyrical route with Felix Mendelssohn’s lovely “Song Without Words” Op. 62 No. 1, subtitled “May Breezes,” in a transcription by Fritz Kreisler. They repeated the entire concert in nearby Cashiers the next evening. The final concert of the festival’s 2014 season took place Sunday — a gala event in Highlands that featured the music of Mendelssohn.

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