English violinist Daniel Hope’s debut recital Saturday night was an exemplary Summer Festival guest performance: virtuosic in expression, fresh in programming, and winning in the guidance of an Academy ensemble. The unforgettable first half of this concert consisted of a variety of works for unaccompanied violin, all played with power, presence, and astonishing control of sound, tone, and tuning. The second half brought to the stage an ensemble of 15 fellows and three faculty members for a performance of contemporary composer Max Richter’s “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons violin concertos, a work premiered by Hope in 2012.
The evening began with an unprogrammed segue to Passacaglia by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, composed by his late-17th-century contemporary Johann Paul von Westhoff. Imitation of Bells was a mesmerizing experience, a melody-less sequence of rhythmic arpeggios affected by the steady rocking of the bow over all strings. The resulting block of sound was at once static and dynamic, undulating on the surface while gradually transforming harmonically. Von Biber’s Passacaglia, which followed without pause, is another work at once simple and complex. A slow-walking descent of four repeated notes (think “Sing Christmas Bells”) forms the unvarying backbone of this solo violin showpiece, with all the interest invested in imaginative variation, ornamentation, and fill-ins. Hope captured the improvisational character of Passacaglia, and proved that our favorite rock and jazz solos, inventions often built over just such simple vamps, are at root nothing new.
The jaw-dropping event of the evening, however, followed next, with two modern masterpieces that combined broad tonal language with advanced techniques. Hope joked that Alfred Schnittke’s A Paganini pays homage to the legendary violinist and composer by running his Caprices through a blender. The Soviet and Russian composer, who made his living writing film scores, was fascinated by electronic effects, and Hope’s rendition was tastefully enhanced by the live manipulations of English sound artist Chris Ekers. Erwin Schulhoff’s Sonata for Solo Violin unfolds in four short movements, and evinces folk fiddle influences. Hope gave a touching introduction that honored the Czech composer whose life was cut tragically short during World War II.
Max Richter allegedly wrote Recomposed: Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ not merely in homage to the composer, but also in revolt to nauseating habituation that employs the original as elevator and dental office muzak. The meta-dimension is extremely effective for awakening the listener: hooking the ear with familiar fragments of melody or orchestral ostinato, only to launch into the unknown (and frequently unresolved), as if a familiar highway had been magically rerouted overnight. The fine ensemble was augmented with harpsichordist Chien-Lin Lu and harpist Ruriko Terada, as well as faculty members Jorja Fleezanis (violin), Alan Stepansky (cello), and Nico Abondolo (double bass).