An unexpected and wonderful side effect of COVID-19 on the classical music scene may be the re-definition of “chamber music.” In Haydn and Mozart’s day, musicians played in the intimacy of their homes for the enjoyment of their friends. As re-introduced by the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, we are the friends who have been invited into the living rooms of some of the greatest musicians in the world, to sit in a comfortable setting for glorious music and informal conversation. I’ve always wished I could time travel and join Mozart’s circle, but this is the next best thing.
On Friday, there we were in Iggy Jang’s home, listening to the beloved concertmaster of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra make magic with his violin. It was a treat to also meet his wife Christine Suehisa-Jang who accompanied him on the piano, as must happen on many an ordinary day in the life of the Jangs. The effect of the COVID-19 shelter-at-home rule was evident by Iggy’s hair, which obviously had not met a barber in some time: he looked like one of his high-school-age students when he led the strings program at HPAF in its earlier years! That only added to the relaxed atmosphere. But once he picked up the violin, everything mundane dissipated, and we were transported to other places and times through three “pairs” of musical pieces.
First, we left Honolulu to cavort with Hungarian Gypsies. Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dances were written in the Romantic period, when the stricter forms of sonatas and symphonies gave way to explorations of other structures like songs and etudes, and where a new fascination with folk music emerged. Both Hungarian Dance #1 and #4 begin slowly, with heart-breaking melodies like torch songs, and then suddenly, the violin explodes into notes that swirl like dervishes, with rapid key shifts and tempo changes typical of Gypsy dances. After a languid beginning, #4 goes wild; then there is a section where the violin speaks in a very high voice in a simple tune like a child’s song. All this variety, especially the high-velocity sections, requires technical virtuosity – and an accompanist who can turn on a dime with the soloist! However, what makes Iggy truly stand out is his musicality: his ability not just to hit all the notes precisely with full voice, but to make the music tell a story. He imbues the Dances with pathos and playfulness, depression, and delirium.
Then in the twinkle of an eye, we found ourselves in France on a summer’s night. Claude Debussy was an impressionist, most interested in creating a mood, an atmosphere. In the pair “Beau Soir” and “Clair de Lune,” the violin sustains tone clarity above, while arpeggios in the piano run below, like the shimmering of water or a wind-swept field of grass beneath the calm arc of the moon and sky. The brief breaks in melodic line were like clouds passing over and covering the moon until clearness returned.
The pair of pieces by Aram Khachaturian, the Soviet composer who, as Iggy explained, caught his ear at an early age with his blend of Eastern and Western influences, took us to Russia and Armenia. In the “Nocturne” from his Masquerade Suite, we are again outside at night. The violin conjures softly swaying branches reaching for the stars; Iggy’s tone is almost translucent. And then, Khachaturian’s naughty “Nune’s Variations” from the ballet Gayeneh. The pizzicato, staccato punctuation, and abrupt ending made me laugh; but I pity the poor ballerina who might try to keep pace with Iggy’s playing!
Perhaps my favorite pair were the two sections from Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, the “Seguidilla” and the “Gypsy Dance.” In the first, the illusion of two violins is created, one playing the melody in a higher register, and the other in a lower register answering each phrase like the violin’s own accompaniment to itself. The “Dance” is a theme and variations, growing faster and more complex as each variation develops, showing off Iggy’s ability to make the bow itself dance like a Gypsy. The hour was full of dance, ending with Argentinian composer Atilio Stampone’s tango, “Mi Amigo Cholo,” (“My Hapa Friend”) with Iggy conveying the sensibility of yet another style. I wished that it too had a “pair,” since I didn’t want the music to end.
But what a joyful hour, what a gift to be invited into Iggy and Christine’s “chamber!” We left with full hearts, grateful to Iggy and HPAF for their warmth and generosity.
Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos courtesy of Hawaii Performing Arts Festival.
Read another concert review for Iggy Jang here.