At Tannery Pond: Joan Kwuon, violin, and Teddy Robie, pianist, in Copland, Ravel, and Franck

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Joan Kwuon and Teddy Robie
Joan Kwuon and Teddy Robie

Tannery Pond Concerts
Saturday, October 3, 2009

Joan Kwuon, violinist
Teddy Robie, pianist

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) 
Sonata, for violin and piano
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) 
Sonata, for violin and piano
César Franck (1822-1890) 
Sonata in A major, for violin and piano

In spite of all the excitement over Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach recital in Great Barrington, Tannery Pond attracted an impressive crowd for one of the great concerts of the season, an America-French program played by two splendid young musicians, violinist Joan Kwuon and pianist Teddy Robie. The unique, richly varied tone she brought forth from her magnificent 1734 ‘Spagnoletti’ Guarneri del Gesù (lent by Elliott and Mona Golub), her astonishing technique, her mature musicality, and deep feeling give her all the qualities of a truly great musician. Joan Kwuon is the rare sort of violinist who commands the highest virtuosity, but uses it without the slightest sense of slickness or display for its own sake. She is a sober player who enters entirely into the music and comes out with a deeply poetic sense of its expression and meaning. She seems in total sympathy with the dark, almost viola-like timbre of the Guarneri. The basic sound of her upper middle register is rich and deep, but not really sensuous per se. I was fascinated by this quality in itself, but Kwuon is capable of many variations and nuances of tone color in this range, and with the pungent sonorities she produces from the G and D strings her tonal range is phenomenal.

Ms. Kwuon received advanced degrees from Indiana University, the Juilliard School and the Cleveland Institute of Music. She currently teaches at the Juilliard School, the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and the Cleveland Institute of Music. She made her Tanglewood debut in the Brahms Violin Concerto at Sir André Previn’s invitation and has played with him several times. She performed a recital with him as pianist, and a recording of her playing his Violin Sonata along with Richards Strauss’, Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo, and Tchaikovsky’s Mélodie will soon be released.

Teddy Robie seemed very much in control of the Tannery’s Yamaha, assuming a secondary role as accompanist when Ms. Kwuon was playing in the fore and transitioning into a strong presence of his own, when it was called for. He is a musician of particular subtlety and sensitivity, both to the music and to his collaborator. He was able to follow her every shading of phrasing or color with a fully conscious and individual response which went far beyond mere imitation. He played very much as an equal, however discreet and collegial he may be.

It is good news for local audiences that Mr. Robie is a regular at the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival, where this past summer he played with Donald Weilerstein. He holds a Masters degree from the Juilliard School of Music and is working toward a DMA at Stony Brook University.

Copland’s Violin Sonata is an appealing, elegiac work from 1943 which strikes a balance between his populist styles and the more rigorous work of his Paris years. He began it on the East Coast before going to Hollywood to write the score for Lewis Milestone’s The North Star, a feature film about guerrilla resistance to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. It was dedicated to the memory of Lt. Harry L. Dunham, a young friend of Copland’s, a composition student at Juilliard, who was killed in the Pacific. The opening theme, with its ambiguously falling and rising shape over grave chords in the piano, offered a perfect introduction for the particular sound of both the violinist and her Guarneri. There was a gentle, but engaged interaction as the quicker, floating keyboard phrases emerged. Every motif in the movement suggests both introspective and a more energetic moods, which both musicians followed with empathy. The slow movement opens with a theme introduced by the piano, then shared by the violin, a passage of great simplicity and dignity, which looks inward at the depths of grief and resignation, while maintaining some kind of optimistic poise. Kwuon enriched these simple, broad phrases with extraordinary shadings of color and expression, making the audience hang on every note. The final statement of the theme the the lower registers of the violin, overwhelmingly beautiful in this performance, leads directly into a finale dominated by sprightly, syncopated motifs, which are tossed back and forth between piano and violin, not without a certain airy quality reminiscent of of Maurice Ravel, who was, most appropriately, the next composer on the program.

In the Ravel sonata Kwuon and Robie articulated the simple, flowing theme and light textures with more attention to the special character of the smaller units within it, using variations of timbre and phrasing. Kwuon’s bite and color in the tremolo passage in the middle of the first movement was breathtaking, as was the ensemble, and, beyond that, sympathy of both players. In the second movement blues, the pizzicato opening was a marvel, as were the phrasing and syncopated rhythms throughout. The violin pizzicato returns in a middle section, where the syncopations in both instruments and in their interaction become increasingly complex and even rather intense. Some musicians may be tempted to toss Ravel’s Sonata off as a trivial work, but not this pair. Without losing any of its lightness or wit, they faced its subtleties with all seriousness. Ms. Kwuon’s virtuosic control in the rapid main theme of the final movement was astonishing. Not only were intonation and articulation consistently perfect, she had the extra mastery to bring out a wealth of detail as well. Her focus had its way of drawing us into each note and each phrase.

If the first half of the program was impressive in itself, their performance of the Franck A Major Violin Sonata went even further. It is hardly underperformed, and many of the recognized greats have played it often, but this performance was exceptional in bringing across its consistency of inspiration, its seriousness, and its greatness. Kwuon’s smoky timbre, her discretion in portamento, and her ability to balance an energetic shaping of small units against the long line of Franck’s seemingly endless opening melody emphasizes the strength and energy of the work, along with its elegance and melancholy. Robie took up the second movement allegro with the apposite Lisztian energy, and Kwuon’s dark timbre was magnificent, reminding me of how well-chosen the program was for her particular qualities. So far it was a magnificent, large-scale performance with muscular solidity balanced by constantly shaded color and phrasing. With the third movement, the Recitative, however, Ms. Kwuon seemed to enter a different world. I seldom characterize a performance as “deeply heart felt,” because, for one thing, the phrase is a cliché, which attempts to define an entirely subjective quality, but I know of no other way to describe Ms. Kwuon’s preternaturally mature feeling in this music. Her playing was sober and disciplined, but its dignity was filled with a genuine emotion that one rarely encounters. She played the entire movement freely, as a true recitative, and both the rhetoric and the emotion carried over into the last movement, giving it a substance which is often glossed over by the lyrical seductiveness of the primary theme, the temptation to sweetness, or pathos, or even sentimentality it may elicit from lesser musicians. Both Kwuon and Robie invested a great deal of power into the broad secondary theme in the minor. In the final section she gave Franck’s splendid trill its full expressive value, producing a full-blooded tactile sound from her instrument. In this way the movement echoed the Copland sonata as a thoroughly absorbing struggle between meditative sadness and a more active, joyous mood.

This truly great performance needs no other comment, but I should like to mention another side of Joan Kwuon’s work. A survivor of breast cancer which she contracted at the age of twenty-nine, she and her husband, Joel Smirnoff, founded Artists for Breast Cancer Survival, an organization which sponsors concerts and other events ot raise money for cancer research. If you ever have an opportunity to contribute to this cause by attending a concert or through donation, I urge you to do so.

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