Bashmet at Carnegie

[FOREWORD: Out of respect for fellow artists and professional critics, I try to avoid opining on concerts and compositions. Most often it’s not that I disliked the art, but that it’s not for me to judge anyone’s artistic choices. I try to let the artistic experience work on me internally, giving it time to digest and react in my own creations instead… Here are some thoughts about matters which (I hope!) are not as artistic as they are a reflection on the contemporary concert life. ]

As a young violist growing up between Moscow and New York, I idolized one man – Yuri Bashmet. Since the beginning, I loved his incredible tone, his unmatched vibrato (and that he plays *without* vibrato at least half-the-time), his impeccable intonation, and of course his powerful and highly individual interpretive approach and musicality. I was fortunate enough to hear the premiere of the Schnittke Viola Concerto, and the first concert of the Moscow Soloists. Elsewhere, I remember Yuri visiting us and giving me a short violin lesson…

Hearing Bashmet in New York earlier this Sunday at Carnegie Hall felt like a trip back to childhood. There was Yuri, on stage, playing Schnittke, and there was I, in the audience. It’s as if the past twenty years did not appear, and we were back in Moscow; as if Yuri was my violistic grandfather, and I was due for a visit.

But things do change. We both grew older, the world grew faster, and though every moment of Yuri’s classic recordings was firmly encoded in my mind, most of my inspiration now comes from folk fiddlers, singer songwriters, and filmmakers.

In my eyes, Yuri Bashmet can do no wrong; here are a few quips about other matters:
Mahler’s arrangements of the Beethoven “Serioso” and Schubert’s “Death & The Maiden” are not imaginative. Instead of creatively re-interpreting the original sources, they merely amplify the ensemble and provide very few solutions for playing a piece designed for 4 people by a team of 30-40. Very few textures are rebalanced, and while the music gains a bigger belly, it loses so much power in clarity. How wonderful it would be to have the pieces carefully, creatively re-arranged and re-envisioned! (I could do it, but would be eaten alive by “scholars”…)

Schnittke’s “Monologue” — to my jazzified ears, this sounds like a written-out improvisation with orchestral accompaniment. Slow sections intersect with dissonant runs, but each of these runs sounded arbitrary – I’m sure they weren’t random to Schnittke. Primarily, the piece felt dated to its era of internal and political struggle, of accepting discord as part of the musical language. I couldn’t take the piece seriously – it is much too short, a sort of token from an old era to accompany a film about hard times. These days, dissonance is something John Zorn creates instantaneously for entertainment, much to the delight of his fans. (Part of a larger issue.)

Britten’s “Lachrymae” is a brilliant piece, which received a fine – if sometimes a little rushed – performance. It works infinitely better when played as a viola/piano, an intimate conversation between two contrasting instruments.

Generally speaking, Russian ensembles often shine best in encores. Finally, after playing an “official” (and officially-approved) program, they could afford to “laugh it off” with a few inventive crowd-pleasers. Spivakov has always been the undisputed master of encores. But on this present concert, it was disappointing to hear a rather standard interpretation of the finale from Mozart’s Divertimento in D. While it could make a gentle palette-cleanser after a program of Webern, in this case – following the finale of “Death and the Maiden” – it felt heavy and wrong. (Having previously heard it at many weddings, and as background source music for various films, did not help the cause.)

The second encore – a “Polka” by Schnittke – felt very much like the final nail in the coffin, a mockery of all that preceded it. The audience loved it — but the joke (as always) remained with Schnittke.

Overall, I could not stop the feeling that the music Bashmet played was *not his*. It was music that was important to his time and his generation, and surely it was beautiful, but it was *not his*. He didn’t write it, he didn’t customize it, and he was simply *playing*, not making it his departure point. In the age of remixing, where so much original music courts attention at MySpace, a performance of someone else’s music other than one’s own felt somehow disingenuous and insufficient. (Was I listening to a cover band?!) Rumor has it that Yuri recently recorded a short original jazz-inspired composition – now THAT I’d love to hear.

All that aside, it was a beautiful concert, a much-needed breath of snowy Moscow air, a mirage of years past, years reclaimed…

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