By Bob Park
For the final concert in its 2016/17 season, the South Okanagan Concert Society presented the wonderful, Newfoundland-based, Duo Concertante. Violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves are partners in life and partners in music. Seventeen years ago we had first heard this superb duo here in Oliver, on the old Frank Venables Auditorium stage. In the intervening years Nancy and Tim have performed all over the world and received countless awards and accolades.
And here they were again, in Oliver, but this time we could welcome them to the new Venables Theatre! Of this year’s high quality concert line-up, this was perhaps the performance I was most looking forward to. In our age of electrically and digitally processed music it is refreshing to spend a few hours enfolded by the natural, un-amplified sound of beautiful instruments.
Duo Concertante reminded us what a miracle of sound in skilful hands the grand piano and the violin are! In spite of what one might expect by merely looking at their size, these instruments really were perfectly balanced. The big sound of our modern Yamaha C3 never overpowered the violin. While some brilliant minds in 16th century Italy were designing St. Peter’s Cathedral, creating the sculpture of David and painting the Mona Lisa , others invented a tiny wooden box that can fill a concert hall with sound that speaks straight to the heart—even four centuries later!
The concert opened with a seldom heard Sonata in A Major, by J.S. Bach. Instead of featuring a violin soloist with keyboard accompanist, this sonata had the violin and the keyboard on an equal footing. The counterpoint style has a melody being followed by another and often a third always playing catch-up, and each instrument takes the lead at different times. Although old J.S. Bach and the early music crowd might disagree, I think that this sonata works better with piano than with the original harpsichord, since the different voices can be separated more distinctly.
From the first movement of this sonata on, I knew we were in for a real treat. Nancy’s superb violin playing let us relax and enjoy the music, without her making us aware of how fiendishly difficult this instrument really is. The audience could sit back and let Nancy do the driving. Just one example: Nancy’s way of doing vibrato. Instead of imitating legendary violinists (Heifetz, Kreisler) with a one-speed, super- fast vibrato on all passages, Nancy varies the speed and intensity of her vibrato. On long notes in the Bach sonata she would come into the note softly with no vibration, and gradually build the volume, adding vibrato and then ending the note softly, again without vibrato. Easier said than done, and very effective. Throughout the concert, I found myself focussing on her vibrato, which became her way of expressing emotion, her personal voice.
The Bach was followed by another rarely heard work, Tartiniana Seconda, by Luigi Dallapiccoli (more fun to hear Tim say it than for me to spell it). This short four movement work featured melodies based on Baroque -era dance rhythms combined with some modern harmonies. The original Tartini theme was played with broad triple stops on the violin. The variations allowed Tim to play some fine solo passages on the piano. This lively piece of music deserves more frequent performances.
Concluding the first half of the evening was the Brahms Sonata No.2 in A, perhaps the best known of the composer’s violin sonatas. The beautiful theme of the first of three movements is, I think, well known to violin fans, being on all those “greatest hits” CD’s! Brahms’ life and music are infused with sorrow, dignity and beauty. The slow second movement was absolutely lovely, played by Nancy with that expressive sense of dynamics that draws you in. The highlight of the night for me. This second movement changed in mood and ended with a lively tempo, tricking many of us into thinking the piece was over. The duo must forgive us for applauding; it seemed appropriate considering the magic of the moment.
The second half of the concert was given over to the Franck Sonata in A major, jokingly referred to by violinists as the “Frank Sinatra”. Not every violinist is up to performing this piece. It requires absolute mastery of all technical aspects of the violin and buckets of emotional energy. Nancy certainly pulled it off. When I focussed on Tim’s excellent piano accompaniment, it struck me that the piano part in this work is just as impossible as the violin part! I can’t think of a better way to end a wonderful evening than with that cascading triumphal melody that concludes the final movement!
After that brilliantly executed and exhausting work, it was surprising that the duo still had the energy to treat us to another technical fireball as encore. They played an arrangement of Kachaturian’s well-known Sabre Dance. Lots of fun!
What’s next for the Concert Society? “Piano Chameleons” (two pianos duel it out); “Cheng2Duo” (young brother and sister on cello and piano); “Cari Burdett and Quintet” (gypsy, folk, opera, jazz tunes, cabaret style); “Joe Trio” (court jesters of the classical). The four concerts of the 2017/18 season are already “live” on the ticket section of the Frank Venables Theatre website , as well as being accessible via the theatre box office, Tuesdays through Thursdays, and at 498-1626. Pick your reserved seats as soon as possible! Save $24 on the series, by purchasing tickets to all four concerts in advance!