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On October 27th my husband and I attended a concert of four works that featured piano and violin. The musicians were Dr. Debra Brown on piano and Dr. Cathleen Jeffcoat on violin. I have been taking piano lessons with Dr. Brown and so I was very curious about seeing her in concert. During the lesson that week she showed me some of the music she would be playing. I was surprised to see that her score was marked with pencil, red pencil, and shiny red stars for extra emphasis. For some reason I had expected the score to be pristine; instead it was more like a road map. There were small excerpts of music taped onto the edges; Dr. Brown explained to me that this was so that she could do her own page turns. All this gave me an idea of the vast amount of planning and forethought that happened long before the concert took place.
Some things Dr. Brown has been teaching me about are how to move the body while playing — not sitting stiff and positioning the hands the way you would for a typewriter, but lifting the hands to create phrasing in the music, and moving the upper body while keeping the “sit bones” stationary. I was fascinated to see the many different kinds of hand lifts Dr. Brown used — some just barely above the keyboard, and some floating far above it. Her upper body was in continuous motion, pivoting from the hips. She played with a huge dynamic range. I remember there was one passage with a long crescendo and I thought “surely it can’t get any louder than that!” — but it did — and then louder still.
Most of the time the piano and violin were in dialogue, sometimes taking turns, sometimes both speaking at once. Because I was so interested in the role of the piano, I wasn’t following the violin’s part of the conversation. The main times I noticed the violin were when the piano and violin were passing a phrase back and forth, and when they played in parallel thirds. The violin did come to the forefront of my attention during the Bartók part of the program, “Roumanian Folk Dances”. The violin part of the Bartók pieces reminded me of Irish traditional music. One way the Bartók differed from Irish traditional music was the use of harmonic minor scales. Irish traditional tunes occur in both major and minor, but according to Irishguitarpod.com the minor scale is usually Dorian mode. The use of harmonic minor gave Bartók’s tunes an sharp, plaintive sound. Contrasting with the folk-inspired violin melodies, the piano accompaniment used modern complex chords with 9ths and 11ths and major 7ths. The combination of the violin’s clarity and the piano’s thick chords made me think of a sharp, jagged ink line drawn over a cloudy, textured background.
The Bartók selection took place at the end of the concert. My husband and I agreed that it was good to end the concert with something energetic, simple and accessible. Our ears and brains were exhausted from trying to follow the music from the earlier part of the program. We talked about how difficult it is to engage with a complex piece of music that you are hearing for the first time.
Dr. Brown gave some background on the third piece of the concert, Brahms’ “Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Opus 78 in G Major”, pointing out that it featured a motif with a dotted rhythm. The mood to me suggested longing and sweet remembrance.
The shortest piece in the concert was called “Romance” by Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. It was delicate, charming, and sentimental. My husband said that it sounded like something from a period drama on BBC.
I have left the most challenging composition for last, although it was first in the program: Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Opus 12, No 1. in D Major.
This was an energetic and assertive composition. While hearing it in concert I knew that there was structure and form in it, but I was unable to follow much on first listening. The allegro movement had a lot of scales running up and down — one instrument making a run and then the other one following. Simple scales transformed into hopping and dancing patterns, like two people doing a wild dance while chasing each other up and down a staircase.
The second movement was had the form of theme and variations. Variation 1 made me think of Mozart, with many trills and turns. Variation 2 had a bouncy, syncopated piano part with a more spare texture that allowed the violin to stand out. Variation 3 was thundering and melodramatic, like a tantrum. Variation 4 was calmer with a wave-like accompaniment.
The third movement of the sonata was Rondo form which means that it had a particular pattern of repeats. It had a dance-like energy.
I have gone to Youtube to listen to other musicians’ versions of these compositions. Now I wish that I could go back in time and hear the concert again, this time with more familiarity!