String instruments made by the Stradivari family in Italy between the 1660’s and the 1730’s are the stuff of legend, reputed to produce the best of all possible resonances even centuries after their manufacture. Scientists have researched the type of woods used, the varnish recipe, the kinds of forms used to shape the wood – but the mystery remains unsolved.
But there is more to the mystique than the physical instrument. Imagining all the musicians who might have played them, the royalty and famous people who might have owned them, the history and stories contained in that small wooden box – that evokes wonder.
So, it was with great anticipation that classical music lovers went to hear a Stradivarius played up close and personal by Martin Chalifour, Principal Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This instrument dates back to 1711; some of its adventures include being discovered in a storeroom on the estate of the British Earl of Plymouth and being owned by the great Austrian violinist and composer, Fritz Kreisler. Andy Czajkowski graciously opened his home for the event, and it was magical to hear the Strad played as the sun set behind the ocean on the Kohala Coast.
The event was a student scholarship fundraiser for the 2019 season of the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, which brings up-and-coming young musicians to study and perform with guest faculty artists on Big Island. For many of us, their many performances make June 24 to July 21 – HPAF month! – our favorite time of the year.
Chalifour was accompanied by another internationally acclaimed artist, Cary Lewis, on a limousine of a grand piano; it would not be fitting to accompany a Stradivarius on just any old piano and fortunately Czajkowki had a perfect one handy! A dynamic duo, they allowed each other to shine where the other had the lead and were in perfect sync where they played in close harmony. In the extremely rapid passages, they matched each other note for note.
Chalifour introduced each piece with charm and informal good humor. The opener was Igor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne in six movements. We’ve all probably heard of Punch and Judy puppet shows; Punch has his origins in the character Pulcinello, a clownish character from Italian comic opera performed during the same period the Stradivari family practiced their craft. In France, this theatrical style, the sit-com of its day, was called Comedie-Italienne, a nod to its country of origin. The Suite is based on Stravinsky’s ballet, Pulcinello, and Chalifour emphasized its comedic qualities: light, playful, humorous. The introduction seems traditionally Baroque, but modern elements are introduced as the piece proceeds. The violin whirled like a dervish through the Tarantella, which becomes studded with dissonances as it seems the dancers crash right off the walls! The Suite is full of surprises and musical jokes, such as interruptions of sweet melodic phrases with sudden bouts of pizzicati, finger plucking or a bouncing bow. Like a bird, Chalifour’s violin pecked and soared, and the jokes were dropped in like casual asides.
Unusual for a violin performance, the next two pieces were adapted from music for the flute. Chalifour, second guessing the composer, thought Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano would sound even better on violin. His arrangement allows for a strong but subtle voice, suited to his elegant but casual style which never overstates. His economical vibrato reverberates without calling attention to itself. Gluck’s Melody,or Dance of the Blessed Spirits, is haunting and ethereal on the flute; in this case, I felt the violin version to be less blessedly spirit-like, but gorgeous nonetheless.
The very slow dirge by Olivier Messiaen from Praise for the Eternity of Jesus with the piano pounding softly like a heartbeat behind the long notes was composed and performed while Messiaen was in a German concentration camp in 1941; the experimental harmonies which do not find the usual resolution create a sense of interminable waiting.
The final piece was a violin Sonata by Saint-Saens. It ends with a lightning fast movement with the violin and the piano taking turns playing improbably extended segments of 16th notes, fingers on strings and keys flying, and concludes with a triumphal flourish. The music pulled us right out of our seats and onto our feet!
Everyone asks, “Does a Stradivarius really sound unique?” Chalifour has a special relationship to his violin; he often took it out from under his chin and seemed to rest his face on it, as if giving it a caress or listening deeply to what is within it. Yes, a Stradivarius is a special instrument, but it is the intimate partnership between artist and violin that makes for a breathtaking performance. Our magical evening with Stradivarius, Chalifour and Lewis fully justified our anticipation.
To learn more about the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, please visit their website: http://www.hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org
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: Steve Roby