Monday, October 31, 2022

I Concerti dell'Aula Magna - Joshua Bell and Peter Dugan - Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy & Bartok - 10/25/22

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Opus 12, No. 2 
Robert Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 121 
Claude Debussy: Violin Sonata in G Minor, L140 
Bela Bartok: Rhapsody for Violin and Piano No. 1, BB 94a, Sz. 86 

Seeing a (friendly) familiar face is a treat anywhere, especially after a couple of years of not seeing many faces to begin with, except masked, on screens, or at a safe distance. That’s why I was thrilled last Monday evening to be attending a promising recital by Joshua Bell, which would be the familiar face, and Peter Dugan, which would be the unknown quantity, with my visiting Neapolitan friend Vittorio at La Sapienza University in Rome.
There is no doubt that I would have gone to the concert regardless, but in this case, it was also a not-to-be-missed opportunity for me to treat Vittorio to a memorable evening of timeless music for his birthday, which happened to be the day before. Not exactly perfect timing—Apparently the two musicians hadn’t gotten the memo—but I was confident that they would more than make up for this small mishap in their own ways. 
Although life has finally been getting back to normal in the Eternal City, it was nevertheless hard not to think that something was still wrong with the world when realizing that Joshua Bell, one of classical music’s biggest stars for decades now, had not managed to fill up the 600 seats of the Aula Magna, the university’s performance venue, whose main characteristics are a fascist design, egalitarian vibes and good acoustics, when he used to sell out Carnegie Hall’s 2,800-seat Stern Auditorium and other seemingly large venues in a matter of days. 
On the other hand, back in those days, no matter how much planning and scheming I would put into trying to find a decently located and decently priced seat for one of his concerts, I had never managed to grab such all-around unbeatable seats as the ones I had gotten for us for Monday night in Rome. And we were determined to make the most of them till the very last note. 

As if to set a positive tone for the evening, Bell and Dugan kicked off their performance with what has to be one of Beethoven’s most unabashedly buoyant works. Indeed, with plenty of light-heartedness to lift everybody’s spirits, and yet enough complexity to keep musicians and audience of their toes, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Opus 12, No. 2 was an overtly charming romp that kept on merrily running its 20-minute course in no small part thanks to the two musicians’ genuine connection and obvious comfort with each other. I honestly never thought I’d ever associate Beethoven with fun, but I do now. 
After such an invigorating opening number, the mood was bound to become more serious sooner or later, and it in fact grew distinctly more dramatic with Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 121. Adroitly bringing out the piece’s poised pensiveness, poignant turbulences, and inherent lyricism too, all the way to the deeply passionate last movement, the two artists worked their way through Schumann’s action-packed roller-coaster confidently and effortlessly, although Bell’s bow may beg to differ. 
After the intermission, we moved from 19th century Germany to 20th century France, and a significantly more somber mood, with Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G Minor, L140. Written as the composer was facing dire circumstances, including the general turmoil of the First World War and the more personal tragedy of his own cancer diagnosis, it therefore came to no surprise that the work had some predominantly dark undertones, but not without attractive melodies and elegant lines, and even a surprisingly optimistic conclusion. 
And then, after Beethoven’s cheerfulness, Schumann’s intensity, and Debussy’s melancholy, the official program wrapped up with the irresistible Hungarian dance rhythms of Bartok’s Rhapsody for Violin and Piano No. 1, BB 94a, Sz. 86. Thing is, when you have a certified technical wizard like Joshua Bell on the stage, you do expect dazzling virtuosic sparks to start flying all over the place at some point or another, and they sure did during that highly entertaining little number. Endlessly versatile artist and tireless music advocate Peter Dugan may not be the household name that Bell is just yet, but he clearly demonstrated all evening that he was every bit the accomplished musician that his more famous partner was. Ergo, a wonderful evening was had by all. 

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Joshua Bell is that he usually takes the time to introduce the encores he is about to perform, and he did it again on Monday evening, with his own delightful arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2, which leisurely unfolded in all its radiant beauty, and Wieniawski’s exhilarating Scherzo-tarantelle, which provided us with one last occasion to indulge in an explosive bouquet of uncompromising fireworks. Buon compleanno, Vittorio!

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