"Au revoir! Jean Huang's Last DMA Violin Recital"
April 20th, 2017
I am a middle child. By all accounts, I had a really pleasant childhood. However, growing up in a five-person family, I sometimes received less attention than my siblings and got away with whatever I felt like doing, thus developing a rather free-spirited and independent personality. When I designed my program for my last recital at NEC, I decided to play a series of pieces which echoed my personality. An all- French program came to mind.
As is common with the middle child in most families, I grew up with a lot of freedom, which reminded me of the way French composers handle their music. French music has often been associated with Impressionism, implying a rather vague image of pastel-tone palettes. However, as I spent years learning pieces by French composers along with the French language at NEC, I only recently realized the amount of precision and detail in all French and Franco-Belgian music (in Ysaÿe’s case), and in the language. It is quite unusual to find any vagueness in them.
If there is one thing that is actually vague about French composers, it would be the wiggle room under their authority; there are many discrepancies in the various editions of all the pieces on this program. Without proper research it is difficult to pinpoint the reasons why different editions don’t have the exact same notes, dynamics, rhythms or even clefs; it does give the general impression that these French composers dealt with notating music in a more casual manner than German composers, or were less insistent on their own authority over the music.
That being said, playing an all-French program indeed requires very specific mediums (such as vibrato in the left hand and bow speed in the right hand, and the combination of both) in order to achieve the special color behind each musical phrase. With my colleagues here, I plan to celebrate my 12 year-long musical journey here at the New England Conservatory with Ysaÿe’s Amitié, violin sonatas by Poulenc and Pierné, and the Ravel Piano Trio.
There is no better way to start the evening than by telling you a story about friendship. Poème No. 6, “Amitié,” (meaning “friendship” in French) is a short piece about sixteen minutes long. Eugene Ysaÿe (1858-1931) composed it for two solo violins and orchestra. He wrote this piece in 1927, and dedicated it to his friend Théodore Lindenlaub, who was the editor of Swiss daily newspaper Le Temps. Compared to other works by Ysaÿe, Amitié is somewhat lesser-known, perhaps due to its technical difficulties.
When Zenas and I began tackling this piece, we fell in love with the almost magical harmonic colors that Ysaÿe was able to create and the back-and-forth conversation between the two violins. We felt as if the piece vividly depicts our six-year friendship, or any other true companionship for that matter-- the two violins don’t always agree with each other, though to some extent the competition and conflicts eventually lead to a harmonious ending. We are also very grateful to make this brilliant piece come to life with Livan playing the orchestra part on piano. He fell in love with the piece as well, and re-orchestrated the piano part to more closely mimic an orchestral color.
If one hears Amitié as a journey of two people discovering the true meaning of friendship, Poulenc’s Violin Sonata (FP 119), written two decades later, examines the darker side of human emotion, in an emotional journey which forces the audience to face the violence individually. Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) composed this three-movement violin sonata during WWII in 1942, in memory of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was murdered in the Spanish Civil War. The passionate outer movements are rhythmically driven; the first movement (Allegro con fuoco) starts with a fierce four-note pizzicato chord followed by a fast gesture in thirds portraying tragedy and violence. One can easily associate these abrupt pizzicato chords punctuating the first movement as the gun shot which took Lorca’s life. In the middle movement (Intermezzo), the violent pizzicato chords transform into soft broken chords where the violin is used like a guitar or lute. These broken pizzicato chords carry Lorca’s famous quote, written at the beginning of the movement: “the guitar makes dreams weep.” Indeed, the second movement is full of dreamy and pastel-colored melodic lines, which create a huge contrast between it and the movement that follows. This third movement (Presto tragico) opens up with highly rhythmic fast gestures, which blossom into the surprising major section. This major section acts like a bitter joke until the main theme returns at the end, which makes the slow tragic ending even more ironic and heavy-hearted.
Working on this piece has been especially rewarding, for Poulenc puts the piano part and violin part on equal footing. This forces Mana and me to really acknowledge the difference between one small wooden box with strings and one humongous percussion instrument, and to work with that difference. The sonata challenges the violinist to perform a range of articulations, to the point where things become non-idiomatic and awkward. Bang! Imagine a poet leaving the most beautiful words after gunfire during the war, when the world is faced with the ugliest and darkest side of humanity.
After going through such an emotional rollercoaster in the first half of this evening’s performance, Mana and I will be presenting a slightly more light-hearted violin sonata by Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937). My violin teacher Mr. Zazofsky often jokes about how my recital programs are full of unusual pieces, which make his life as a teacher much more challenging. I love Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Fauré and Franck, but as a violinist living in the 21st century, I also enjoy the process of looking for new color and extending the short history and limited geography of violin sonata repertoire. Just like Ysaÿe’s Amitié, Pierné’s violin sonata Op. 36 is also a hidden gem which really should be performed more often.
Pierné studied with César Franck, which is pretty obvious as one may find shadows of Franck in this violin sonata in its unstable tonal center, constant modulation, and the use of chromatics. However, in addition to seeing Franck’s influences in Pierné’s violin sonata, I also sense this piece as having been influenced by Gabriel Fauré, where unequal phrasing structure emphasizes the uneasy and spontaneous quality in his music.
Pierné’s sonata contains a whimsical and agitated quality in all three movements: The first movement (Allegretto) sets up a playful atmosphere with the violin playing a long-short hopping figure in meter while the piano is playing two 3+2 sixteenth note figures in 10/16 meter. The second movement (Allegretto tranquillo) initially sounds like an innocent lullaby, but the piano constantly emphasizes the second beat of every measure, which makes the movement sound like a limping waltz instead. The last movement (Andante non troppo-Allegretto un poco agitato) showcases the virtuosity of both instruments by demanding both players have great technical command to the instruments, while also managing highly syncopated rhythms. The piece ends with the triumphant return of the very opening theme from the first movement; this cyclic writing once again reminds the audience of Franck’s influence.
Unlike the previous three pieces on my program, Maurice Ravel’s Trio for piano, violin and cello, composed in 1914, has long been regarded as one of the French 20th Century masterpieces. Having become more acquainted with the piano trio genre in the past three years, I have learned to appreciate Ravel’s genius in recognizing the different quality of sound each instrument produces. He demands extremes of articulations, tempi, and pitch range in all three instruments and especially for cello, which can be easily covered by the piano.
Moreover, Ravel incorporates other art forms in this piece. He uses a Basque ⅝ meter dance called Zortziko in the first movement (Modéré); he maintains the uneven, swinging characteristic of this dance and makes it into 8/8 meter (3+2+3), adding the two strings playing two octaves apart to open the movement with a huge spatial range. Besides incorporating dance elements in his music, Ravel also adopts the Malay verse form “Pantoum” as the title of the second movement: It is composed of a series of quatrains where the second and the fourth lines of the previous stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next stanza. However, instead of strictly following the repetition guideline of Pantoum, Ravel draws attention to how two main themes develop through different passages. The third movement is a passacaglia building from the piano’s bass opening eight bars, joined by the cello and then the violin. This movement also works as a palindrome, where the first half of the movement leads to a climax followed by the second half which is written in a mirror image of the beginning. It then attacca directly into the last movement with violin arpeggio harmonics.
In the Finale, the dance-like qualities create sparks to the music, which alternates between 5/4 and 7/4 meter. The section builds up to the highest climax of the entire piece: a brilliant, almost Tchaikovsky-like coda with the pianist playing huge chords in an extremely wide range, alternating with the two string instruments’ trills and fast runs, two octaves apart. For those in the audience who aren’t familiar with this very trio, the piano is definitely the star of the show. The piece demands great agility on the keyboard, while at the same time asking the pianist to be very sensitive and provide a firm foundation to the two string instruments. Luckily Iris is doing all of the above.
I am so fortunate to have this opportunity to work on such an explosive, colorful and expressive program with Iris, Jung-Hsuan, Mana, Zenas and Ivan, along with countless inspiring moments from Mr. Zazofsky and Mr. Buswell. Twelve years of studying at New England Conservatory has been a challenging yet incredibly rewarding journey, and I would like to take my last DMA recital as a chance to express my gratitude to all my teachers, my colleagues, and most of all to my parents, who gave me all the freedom and encouraged me to fulfill my dream: pursuing a musical path.