William Hagen performs The Lark Ascending, on a 1735 del Gesù violin

February 20, 2017, 5:33 PM · Enjoy this performance by William Hagen, of "The Lark Ascending" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, while you read about it:

On Saturday I attended a concert by the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra -- attracted by the prospect of hearing violinist William Hagen play the 1735 "Sennhauser" Guarneri del Gesù. Hagen received the violin on loan last December from the Stradivari Society of Chicago. Hagen, 23, who won third prize in the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Competition, has been busy soloing around the world, and recently he started studying with Christian Tetzlaff at Kronberg Academy in Germany.

The concert turned out to be quite a unique and enjoyable experience, not only as a chance to see the soloist, but also as a chance to see this relatively new and new-thinking orchestra, which was playing at an also-new venue near my house, the Rothenberg Hall at The Huntington Museum in San Marino, Calif. Kaleidoscope is a Los-Angeles based, conductor-less ensemble that is in its third season. Members of the orchestra perform standing, taking their cues from each other. The group actually invites audience members to record the performance on their smart phones, noting in the program that "we actually love it when people take photos and videos during concerts."

Thus the video above was taken from my seat, on my iPhone. My video doesn't pick up the full breadth of the orchestra's sound, but it's not hard to discern the quality of that violin, even through a cell phone. In fact, "The Lark Ascending," with its soaring birdsong melodies that often allow the violin to fly solo, turned out to be an ideal piece for showcasing a fine violin.

Before the performance, we heard some interesting details about the piece: Written on the precipice of World War I, Vaughan Williams apparently conceived of the piece while walking on a cliff by a shipyard. He was arrested when someone mistook him for a spy, jotting down details of the coastline for the enemy.

On Saturday, the sound of the violin was mesmerizing from the start, its richness uncompromised even in the highest possible registers. This piece, for all its popularity, poses some challenges for the violinist. The score is thick with trills, runs and repetitive figures; yet it has to sound free and improvisational, with a sense of melody running through all that noodling. Before the concert, Hagen said that "The birdsong is there; the emotion is what I need to do with it." I think he succeeded in finding the musical center and lending meaning to all those notes. He also produced some exquisite moments of quiet, including the end of the piece, when the audience remained still for a very long time.

After Hagen's performance, Curtis Institute-based composer Scott Ordway turned the audience into a "whisper chorus" for the West Coast premiere of his work, "Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World." Originally written for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, the piece used texts adapted from various ancient cultures, which audience members found upon arriving at their seats at the beginning of the concert. Ordway was on hand to explain how it was to work: the room was divided into three color-coded regions; on the left were multiple texts about love (red), in the middle texts about death (blue), and on the right texts about the gods (yellow -- that's where I was). Our job, in the audience, was to each whisper aloud our individual text at the appropriate time, when the appropriately colored light was projected onto a stage panel.

My text was a rather puzzling but interesting two paragraphs about killing and rationing gazelles, and I whispered my way through it some half-dozen times over the course of the piece, sometimes in its entirety, and sometimes just little bits. With the orchestra playing in near-dark, our texts were illuminated more than the orchestra was, and I found it to be an interesting collaboration. In the middle of the piece a singer walked onto stage, sang something beautiful that reminded me of Gorecki's Sorrowful Songs symphony, then walked off. All very engaging and well-conceived.

The concert opened with Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" -- this seemed like a difficult piece to play without a conductor. Though the sound was always of high quality and beautiful solo work shined through, occasionally there were moments of hesitation, as orchestra members seemed to wait for consensus.

Before the concert also was a lovely moment when French hornist David Cripps described what it was like to play in the original Star Wars movie sound track. In fact, his playing is what we hear in "Princess Leia's Theme." After he told his story, he played the theme in memory of Carrie Fisher. Click here to read that story and see that video.

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Replies

February 21, 2017 at 06:41 AM · Thank you so much. It was a divine evening. I long ago stopped taking photos or videos of really important things in my life. I found that I got distracted by the photo taking process and missed imprinting the experience into my mind and heart and the photo : video never really fully captured it. This is my absolute most favorite piece of music in the world. I fell totally into the performance. And now I have your video to remember it with.

February 23, 2017 at 05:04 AM · Thanks very much.

February 23, 2017 at 05:25 AM · I've actually been pretty impressed by how well iphones pick up the nuance of a violin's tone. I've used a lot of different microphones and none of them seem to capture the sparkle, clarity, and depth of tone as much as an iphone. Must be good at capturing ultra-high frequencies.

Would never use one to record vocals, but they just work so well for violin.

February 23, 2017 at 05:28 AM · Regarding the violin itself, I can't get over how easily such a full, round tone comes out, despite a crystal clear high end. Truly an example of what the finest of violins can sound like.

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