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Laurie Niles

December 3, 2004 at 8:53 PM

Despite all the notes flying by and the constant meter changes scrambling my brain, I found myself smiling with sheer pleasure at Cho-Liang ("Jimmy") Lin this week as he played the gorgeous Serenade for violin by Leonard Bernstein. He will perform the work twice this weekend with the New West Symphony under Maestro Boris Brott, at 8 p.m. tonight at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. (Yes, and don't forget that I'll be making my premiere as a sub in the second violin section!)

I just haven't heard this piece played often, nor have I had frequent occasion to play the orchestra part. But what a work! Certainly it is not a roller coaster that you can simply get on, sit back and enjoy the ride. It is full of quirks and asymmetries. The violin starts all alone with a gorgeous, plaintive melody. Then it starts hiccuping a bit later -- elegant hiccuping, of course. The third movement features devilishly fast little notes that don't exactly lay with ease on the fiddle, passages everyone has had to practice a few million times to get to speed. And the last movement ..that's the one with the brain scramble.

But what a pleasure. There is nothing like a stage full of people with considerable musical powers, using them to the maximum.

Mostly, it's Lin, playing on his "Duc de Camposelic" Guarneri "del Gesu" from 1734. At 44, he has made numerous recordings, continues to perform all over the world and teaches at Juilliard. He also has led several music festivals, including the Taipei International Music Festival in his native country, the LaJolla SummerFest here in California, and in the works for the future, a music festival in Shanghai.

It is easy to see why he has met with such success, both as a world-class performer and as someone who has been able to bring people together for music festivals. Not only is his playing is thoughtful, interesting, elegant, but also, he's just a really friendly guy! His found face seems to be in a perpetual smile, and he has an eloquent way of speaking about music.

He was kind enough to let me chat with him in his warm-up room before rehearsal last night as he was fiddling with the Infeld blues on his amazing violin. I also took note of his quirky gold Japanese mute, which he uses because it doesn't rattle.

I asked him for his thoughts about the Bernstein.

"I love the piece, the Bernstein Serenade is a masterpiece," said Lin. " If I dare to be controversial, I think it is even better than the Barber Concerto. Barber, in a way, is more European sounding. Bernstein is more quintessentially American, especially the jazzy bits in the last movement. Everybody loves the Barber Concerto because it is so beautiful, but I have trouble, in a way, with the fact that Barber wrote two consecutive lyrical movements. Then he wrote a very brief and very virtuosic finale. I find it just a little bit problematic in its continuity, that the first movements sound very much alike in mood.

"Bernstein, to me, is a beautifullly-crafted piece with lots of hidden structures, which are really strokes of genius. Then, when you step away from it, the music doesn't sound dry or academic. It's a really lively and beautiful piece."

Yes, beautiful. But a little hard to put together.

"It is very tough for everybody involved, as you know!" he laughed. "Tough for the conductor and the orchestra as well. But it's well worth the effort. I would say it is an American classic."

Lin said that though he has played it for some time, he has not yet recorded the work.

"I would love to record it at some point," he said.

I wondered what was actually the most challenging part of this work for the soloist.

"There are some awkward passages in the first movement. In the fast part, there are all these consecutive ninths. A ninth is just generally a little hard to get," he said. "We practice tenths, and octaves, but ninths are kind of neither here nor there. Then in the fast third movement, the scherzo-like 'Erixymathus' movement, you have to really pay total attention to the conductor. You cannot get off, it just has to be so metronomic, and yet you have all these notes to play."

Lin first heard the piece as a child, when he had an old LP recording with Isaac Stern. Bernstein actually wrote the piece for Stern, who premiered in Venice, Italy.

"That piece was a little too esoteric for a child," he said. Children seem to be drawn more to concertos like the Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn or the Barber. "But I remember, singularly, the opening melody of the Bernstein. This melody always stuck with me, it was just a very mesmerizing tune. Later, when I had to learn the piece and I got more and more familiar with the rest of the work, I realized that the heart and soul of this work is actually in the slow fourth movement, the 'Agathon.'"

He finds some American jollity in the last movement. "This bit where the violins go," and he played the jazzy little lick, " if it weren't strings and you put a jazz band together, it really sounds like a Big Band, with a drum set going." He laughed, "I guess Bernstein couldn't resist putting a real bit of Americana in there."

After this concert, Lin will continue with a busy schedule. Next month he will begin a tour with the Moscow Philharmonic. They will go from Florida across the country to Orange County, Calif., stopping in about a dozen cities. He still teaches at Juilliard, but "my students won't be seeing much of me in January," he laughed.

In other projects, Lin is working on starting up a new music festival in Shanghai for April 2006.

"Shanghai is on a building spree, every corner you turn there's some new skyscraper going up," he said. "They are building a new concert hall there right now, state of the art. It's going to open next fall and they wanted to form a festival there. So I'm putting it together as well."

He said he enjoys the opportunity to put such things together.

"I want to put together things, that for instance, the Shanghai Symphony cannot have, like multiple soloists," he said. "I want to put interesting things together that the audiences don't get to hear.

He also likes the opportunity to play to the strengths of the artists involved in a festival.

"For instance, I don't like playing Paganini. If somebody says, you have to play the Paganini Concerto, I'm not going to do a good job. Whereas I'm passionate I'm passionate about Brahms, Bernstein, and with with those I will do a better job. Likewise for my colleagues. If I put things together, I want to realize what they're passionate about, what their strengths are. "

Lin finds great hope for the future of classical music in Asian audiences.

"Asian audiences are great because they tend to be young," Lin said. You know we worry about the gray-haired ladies coming to concerts here, but over there they're much younger. You want to build on that, because that is the future. If these folks like what they hear, they will keep coming back."

From Scott 68
Posted on December 3, 2004 at 9:08 PM
I love the bernstein serenade. Ever since I heard the francescatti's recording I fell in love with the piece.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 5, 2004 at 1:16 AM
It is a wonderful piece, the kind you wouldn't get tired of listening to. I actually don't have a recording of it; after this week it's going to be up there on my Christmas list!
From Scott 68
Posted on December 5, 2004 at 5:05 PM
I think Hillary Hahn recorded it too but I would get the Francescatti with Bernstein conducting.

Francescatti had such a wonderful tone on that record! I dont think I have ever heard a tone like that.

I read somewhere that Salvatore Accardo has Francescatti's violin now the "heart" strad...

Have a great christmas Laurie!

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