(first published at www.cincinnati.com)
Anne Akiko Meyers made her violin sing and more Saturday night in Harriet Tubman Theater at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Headliner for the 2012 Constella Festival, Meyers has an affinity for song, a gift she demonstrated beautifully in selections by J.S. Bach and Astor Piazzolla. She is also one of today’s leading virtuoso violinists, as witnessed by her stunning performance of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano.
There were two Cincinnati premieres on the program, “Lullaby for Natalie” by John Corigliano and “The Wreck of the Umbria” for solo violin and electronics by Polish-American composer Jakub Ciupinski, both Meyers commissions and testament to her commitment to new music. Performing with her was pianist Wendy Chen in an outstanding collaboration.
She and Chen opened with the Air from Bach’s Suite No. 3 in B Minor, BWV 1068 (also known as Air on the G String). It was like a blossom unfolding, the soft, anticipatory opening yielding to a reading rich in nuance and expression. “Lullaby for Natalie” (2010), written for the birth of Meyers’ daughter Natalie, came as a touching complement. Performed muted, it had a folk-like resonance, with hints of Brahms’ Lullaby.
Piazzolla’s “Milonga del Àngel” (title track to his “nuevo tango” album of 1993) came across as slinky and sad (melancholy). Meyers (performing on an 18th-century Guarneri del Jesù violin) utilized a wide range of expressive effects, from sliding between pitches to variable vibrato and excursions into the violin’s highest register.
Ravel’s 1927 Sonata closed the first half on an exclamation point. The first movement, classic but frolicky, built to an exciting climax, then tapered off softly at the end. Meyers opened the second movement, entitled “Blues,” with pizzicato chords and off-kilter accents. She and Chen played it to the hilt, Meyers singing out soulfully and providing energetic strumming (pizzicato) for solo turns by Chen. The two ended on a bluesy seventh-chord, with Meyers bouncing her bow as she slid upward on the violin’s lowest string. The “Perpetuum mobile” finale, fiendishly difficult for the violin with its non-stop sixteenth-notes, simply wowed her listeners.
There was more Bach after intermission, the sublime, familiar “Ave Maria” (via Gounod), then, by contrast, Bartok’s popular Romanian Dances. This suite of six dances was a delight, each distinctively coloristic. The first was gutsy, the second jaunty, the third positively magical with Meyers performing muted artificial harmonics (produced by stopping the string with one finger and lighting touching it with another). It closed on another high note, wild and unhinged.
Meyers closed with Ciupinski’s “Wreck of the Umbria” (2010) which she performed with taped, electronic accompaniment. It was an eerie, spellbinding work, reverberant with synthesized sound, sometimes echoing Meyers, sometimes in duet with her. One felt that the violin was sending out signals and musing over the shipwreck, always reaching for something unattainable. Meyers scraped her bow on the strings to simulate the scraping and creaking of the sunken ship. She ended the piece by bouncing the bow on open strings to create a forlorn effect.
Responding to the crowd’s hearty ovation, Meyers and Chen performed Piazzolla’s haunting tango “Oblivion” and “Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen.