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Odd Couple make magic on violin, piano

Leonidas Kavakos
Buffalo News

By Mary Kunz Goldman

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Enrico Pace, who opened the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series Tuesday night, are a study in contrasts, like the Odd Couple.

Pace, bearded, fussy-looking and buttoned-down, could remind you of an old photograph of, oh, the Moscow Conservatory, class of 1878.

Kavakos, also bearded, has a disheveled look, with an untucked shirt and lank hair falling into his eyes. He has an intense expression, like a man with secrets, rarely glancing at the audience. As one listener joked, he looks like a magician.

Which he is, in the company of Pace. Together, these two opposites make magic.

The concert in the Nichols School’s Flickinger Performing Arts Center began with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, laying out efficiently what these two could do. Pace showed great subtleties and awareness of phrases and transitions and the various articulations Prokofiev loves to explore. He and Kavakos took an explosive approach, veering from the utmost quietude to boisterous blasts.

In one of those quiet phrases, it hit me that Kavakos sounded unlike any violinist I have ever heard. There was one brisk quiet passage in the first movement when his sound flickered like an insect. In long legato lines, he plays as if his bow is just skimming the strings — sailing over the strings as if on a film of oil. So quiet, so smooth.

At the end of the first movement there was a brief patter of applause. Kavakos silenced it — coldly, without smiling or glancing at us — by holding up a palm. What a gesture! The whole evening was worth it for that moment.

After the Prokofiev came 10 of the Preludes for Violin and Piano, Op. 46, by contemporary Russian composer Lera Auerbach — fascinating little pieces, tonal but quirky, requiring a rainbow of sounds from Kavakos and an equally impressive palette of moods from Pace.

The audience gave them complete silence — I do not think anyone so much as coughed. We were rewarded by singular artistry.

A variation I loved had Kavakos tracing a haunting melody in the high treble. Another took him still higher into what I was sure was dog-whistle territory. In yet another variation, he managed to make the violin sound as if it were being heard from a distance. Enthralled at a series of tissuey, raspy lines, I thought of how lucky we were to be hearing this in such close confines. Much of Kavakos’ skill would have been lost with an orchestra in a vast concert hall.

Pace showed his stuff. Those wild chords in the last variation, how did he carry those off? It was as if he were throwing his whole arm on the piano.

The “Kreutzer” Sonata was a fine finale. Here Pace shone, with crystalline trills and witty, alert phrasing. He was aware of the piece’s magical moments and knew how to play them up. Both he and Kavakos made the most of Beethoven’s dynamic contrasts and stomping syncopations.

An especially enchanting moment came at end of the Andante movement. Beethoven was saluting Mozart with these heart-melting lines, beauty for beauty’s sake, and Kavakos’ and Pace’s sound was clear and pure. It is funny how each Tick concert is its own individual adventure. I do not think anyone will forget this one.