When the solo violinist resembles a hipster prophet, the program of new music is titled This is America, and the performance date happens to land on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, some fierce musical commentary is to be expected, correct?
Fierce, often. But commentary? The solo violin music presented by Johnny Gandelsman Thursday by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society was more like a series of musical diaries by composers who weathered the tumultuous events of the past few years.
The bearded, Curtis Institute-educated, Gandelsman is known mostly for playing with three of the most forward-looking ensembles out there — Brooklyn Rider string quartet, The Knights chamber orchestra, and the multicultural Silk Road Ensemble. But as a soloist, Gandelsman clearly has much on his mind and many composer friends, having 20-plus pieces commissioned from organizations, from Philadelphia to Portland, totaling four hours of solo violin music that will eventually be recorded and released under the title of This is America.
The Thursday concert selected seven pieces from this body of work, two co-commissioned by PCMS, and was live streamed from the American Philosophical Society with an in-person audience limited to 30.
The project started around April 2020 when Gandelsman began asking composers “to reflect on the times we find ourselves in” in pieces for unaccompanied violin. “Reflect” is the key word here. Instrumental concert music tends not to be a political medium or to explicitly portray anything outside itself. Solo violin compositions veer more toward confession than grandeur.
The personal tone was set by the first piece. In a prerecorded audio program note, composer Christina Courtin talked about writing her piece, “Stroon,” during a lockdown pregnancy, and warned listeners that there would be fragmentary content. That was true, but the piece achieved a cumulative effect, becoming more and more spare, down to a single repeated note with a contrasting pizzicato that was ultimately hypnotic. In contrast, the program ended with the extroverted “New to the Session” by Grammy-winning Rhiannon Giddens, though the upbeat, good-time dance tunes had interludes of wistful reflection.
In between, the best piece of the concert embodied the platitudes of peace and healing that we hear so often these days: San Juan-born Angelica Negrón’s “A través del manto luminoso” explored an alternative association with Jan. 6 — the Three Kings Day that’s widely celebrated in Latin cultures. Solo violin was augmented by an electronic track of synthesized outer-space noise with what may be the lowest sound frequencies the human ear can hear — somewhat like a ship whistle blast — amid racing violin arpeggios and moments of static repose. The idea was to describe the nighttime sky of Puerto Rico — and it unfolded with a sense of untroubled enthrallment. You wanted the piece to go on forever.
But it didn’t. And others, less fortunately, did.
One was “Stones” by Conrad Tao, one of the better-known names on the program, in a piece inspired by a stone sculpture he saw on the Upper West Side of New York City. The program notes were engaging but the music was discursive with widely-spaced notes, like a sentence in which you only hear every fifth word. After that, “Rhapsody by Tomeka Reid” (co-commissioned by PCMS) was a cogent, lyrical relief, beautifully written for solo violin, in what emerged as the most communicative among these deeply felt soliloquies.
Tyshawn Sorey’s “For Courtney Bryan” (a fellow composer) stands perfectly well as a concert piece but, having been commissioned by the Vail Dance Festival, has already been used as a dance score by Philadelphia’s Ballet X. The piece itself begins with a soft, dissonant effect that might be likened to toxic haze — in a highly eventful piece whose repetitive passages captured the maddeningly redundant days of the pandemic with searing, interruptive outcries. This may not sound like a flattering description, but the piece truly spoke to me.
So did Olivia Davis’ “Steeped” — but in a more passive way. “It’s meandering. It’s somewhat lost,” admitted Davis by way of introducing her piece, “but there’s potential for hope and betterment.” I can’t say it any better.
Throughout, Gandelsman proved he was a violinist who can do anything. His Bach recordings favor a slim, neutral violin tone, though with moments of great rhetorical originality. When a more lush magnitude of sound was called for, such as in Reid’s Rhapsody, he delivered it. Gandelsman did have the advantage of two violins onstage, the second one used for Giddens’ vernacular “New to the Session,” allowing him to convince your ears that he just might be from Appalachia.
The concert will be available on demand through Sunday evening. Information: pcmsconcerts.org.