Review: Rachel Barton Pine plays Mozart 5 - and Ernst 'Last Rose of Summer'

March 21, 2017, 8:12 AM · We came for the Mozart, but we left singing "The Last Rose of Summer."

On Saturday I went to a performance by Rachel Barton Pine with the Pasadena Symphony. One of my students, a senior in high school named Simone, invited me to go, so we went together. It was a neat opportunity, as Pine was playing Mozart, and Simone had studied both Mozart Nos. 4 and 5 with me. For No. 4, we had ventured into new territory for both of us, learning Pine's cadenza for the first movement, which can be found in The Rachel Barton Pine Collection (which also includes cadenzas for concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, and Paganini.)

Pine played Mozart's Concerto No. 5, in her second appearance in the Los Angeles area in the course of a month, the last being a Baroque concert with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in early February. I was happy to see she was getting some good attention for her appearances, notably interview with the LA Times.

Rachel Barton Pine
Rachel Barton Pine. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

Whereas last month Pine was wielding a Baroque bow, playing a viola d'amore for much of the time and conducting from the soloist's spot; this evening she was working with English conductor Nicholas McGegan, principal guest conductor for the PSO, who started the evening by assuring us that tonight we were in for "an incredibly jolly evening."

Sparkling in a blue-grey dress dappled with red and white flowers, Pine took the Mozart at a brisk tempo and signaled early that she'd be making this her own, appending a little ornamentation onto the opening adagio. When the orchestra played its tuttis, she played along, a practice I generally like and which worked for most of the concerto, though in the last movement I longed a little for the back-and-forth that an exchange would have provided. Pine's cadenzas were interesting and unique, full of double-voicing, key changes and unexpected turns.

McGegan's kinetic conducting was fun to watch. Without using a baton, he conveyed both the beat and the message in a series of quirky moves: jazz hands, elbow swings, etc. His enthusiasm didn't always play out in the orchestra, which in the first half seemed a little low on energy -- it was its second performance of this concert in one day.

In a bow to St. Patrick's Day, for an encore Pine played Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst's "Last Rose of Summer" -- an audacious choice by any standard. She explained that Ernst was "Paganini's successor," and that he had written this wickedly virtuosic piece for his colleague, Antonio Bazzini. And, by the way, she was playing the very violin -- a 1742 del Gesù -- that Bazzini played in the 1800s.

Many argue that this is the hardest piece in the violin repertoire, and it's not hard to see why. Never has a melody been through so many travails: left-hand pizzicato, ricochet, double-stops, harmonics, double-stopped harmonics, trills, bariolage, bariolage accompanied by pizzicato, up-bow staccato, pizzicato chords...It would seem that one needs eight fingers to play this piece! But the best thing about Pine's performance was not the technical wizardry itself -- spellbinding though it was. It was that a beautiful and simple melody always shined through that flurry of notes and technique. That is true mastery. I've rarely witnessed this piece live, and it certainly felt like a big event; I was glad my student saw it as well. Pine received a well-deserved standing ovation.

The orchestra's energy seemed to come back in the second half of the program, with a lively (and fast!) performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor, "Scottish." To me, this is Mendelssohn at his best: majestic, well-crafted music that begins in a fuss but ends in a kind of victory march. Who couldn't go home smiling after all that?

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