Review: World Premiere of 24 Preludes for Viola and Piano by Lera Auerbach, with Camerata Pacifica

April 19, 2018, 12:09 PM · The viola does not always get center stage, but on Wednesday night it was given the chance to shine in all its colors in a concert by Camerata Pacifica, featuring the world premiere performance by violist Richard O'Neill of 24 Preludes for Viola and Piano, written by Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach, who also played piano.

The concert -- almost like two concerts in one -- also featured a second half with violinist Paul Huang, cellist Ani Aznavoorian and pianist Warren Jones performing Schubert's epic Piano Trio in B-flat Major, D. 898, Op. 99. The concert took place at Rothenberg Hall, at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. and will be performed at Colburn School's Zipper Hall in Los Angeles tonight, Santa Barbara on Friday and Ventura County on Sunday; click here for details..

Commissioned by 12 parties through Camerata Pacifica, the 24 Preludes were composed by an artist of multiple gifts. In addition to her considerable musical accomplishments and abilities, Auerbach also has published three books of poetry in Russian as well as a book in English; and she is a painter and sculptor.

Before the performance Auerbach explained that she composed the 24 Preludes while on a car trip around Europe, her trunk full of art works that she was delivering to various places. Each Prelude was sketched in a different location, thus each one is named after that location ("The Alps," "Paris," "Prague," etc.). She named the entire set "Wanderer."

My first impression was - to be honest, a little worried. The first Prelude "The Alps" began with a sort of dissonant crunch-and-groan, followed by a few plunks, reminding me of that brand of 20th-century experimental music that makes people run for the doors. Thankfully this did not turn out to be the dominant language of these preludes, and not even of this first one in particular, which settled into something more fluid and relatable. Instead, this cycle can be commended for having quite a scope: angular to smooth; atonal to melodic; grating to lush and beautiful.

Lera Auerbach and Richard O'Neill
Composer/pianist Lera Auerbach and violist Richard Yongjae O'Neill, in the world premiere of 24 Preludes for Viola and Piano. Photo courtesy the artist.

Looking at the program, I immediately noticed that Auerbach designed the Preludes around a circle of fifths, starting in C major, followed by its relative minor key, then following the sequence all around to the 24th prelude in D minor. "Traveling through 24 tonalities is a lot like traveling through 24 countries," she said in the pre-lecture. To be sure, that tonal center made itself evident for only a few fleeting moments in each Prelude, and often not with the traditional harmonic language that makes one feel tonally centered.

That said, the Preludes certainly journeyed through the colors of the viola as well as a wide range of moods and motions. O'Neill gave an absolutely committed and thoughtful performance throughout this long series of pieces (lasting some 50 minutes) that demanded pinpoint control as well as a variety of techniques, including long passages of sul ponticello, tremolos, trills, col legno, double and triple stops, very high playing, etc. The duo created moments of quiet stillness, interludes of busy noise, at times doing a kind of musical dance and at other times a dialogue, a chase or even what struck me as a bit of pillow talk.

Highlights included Prelude No. 10, "Tempo di Valse, umoroso" (Venice) a spooky waltz, with an over-wide vibrato effect that sounded like chills and seemed to place the music in a haunted house. Several movements provided a beautiful sense of contrast simply by their placement next to each other: Prelude No. 15 "Dialogo" (Hannover) highlighted a juicy viola sound, ending in a long glissando slide, the piano accompanying like a music box, into a slow and mesmerizing ending; then the next Prelude No. 16 "Allegro ossessivo" (Salzburg) immediately gave way to busy motion for both instruments. Prelude No. 18 was indeed brooding and slow, with viola in full voice and the piano like a plodding drumbeat. The viola wails, then it grows meek and makes its statement in harmonics, ending with a pizzicato. Prelude No. 23 was almost like a nightclub song - with the viola singing something sentimental before closing time, in close interaction with the piano. Very beautiful, with an ending quiet and special. The last Prelude seemed to almost give a nod to Bach, with its chords and double-stops in the beginning, going very high and delicate, low and loud, and then ending the entire cycle with a very long trill.

The performance earned long ovations from the audience, most of it standing.

The second half of the program was almost like an entirely new concert, featuring violinist Paul Huang, cellist Ani Aznavoorian and pianist Warren Jones in a performance of Schubert's Piano Trio in B-flat Major, D. 898, Op. 99. This was simply chamber music at its finest; three highly gifted musicians giving an attentive and engaging performance.

Before they played, Jones explained that Schubert had written the piece following a grim medical diagnosis, during times of financial duress for the composer as well. Yet the piece is largely happy and good-natured -- a reminder to all of us that "every day we have is a gift," Jones said.

Indeed, this energetic trio played with satisfying precision and synchronicity. The second movement was especially moving, with Aznavoorian playing its opening melody with beautiful expression (on a cello made by her father, Peter Aznavoorian of Chicago). Huang joined, producing an exquisite sound from the 1743 "Wieniawski" Guarneri del Gesù that he plays from the Stradivari Society. The trio kept it moving, circling in and out of each others' lines and keeping that beauty of sound throughout. The third movement was so playful, it was hard not to clap after its clever ending. The last movements had built-in moments of surprise and unexpected turns, and the trio capitalized on these, almost like they were playing character parts. Piano passages sounded almost ticklish, and the musicians smiled as they played. Their tremendous awareness of each other and trust allowed for quite a lot of good humor.

Here are a few pictures we took backstage afterwards with violinist Paul Huang:

Laurie and Paul Editor Laurie Niles and violinist Paul Huang.

Dr. Sloan and Paul Huang
Violin collector Dr. Bill Sloan checks out the 1743 "Wieniawski" Guarneri del Gesù played by Paul Huang, after Wednesday's Camerata Pacifica concert.

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April 19, 2018 at 08:34 PM · Great review! Casimir Ney wrote 24 preludes for solo viola in the exact sequence described. The Chopin piano preludes are also sequenced like that too.

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