Music of the Sphere

06.07.12
Stefan Jackiw
The Brooklyn Rail

By David St.-Lascaux

Stefan Jackiw and Anna Polonsky

Tri-noon recital, Rockefeller University

The utopian world of New York music continues to amaze. All over town free—free—concerts of world-class and emerging talent are to be found, one of which is the Friday Tri-Institutional Noon Recitals series at Rockefeller University, which regularly plays to a packed and enthusiastic house. There’s a reason: Every concert I’ve attended so far can reasonably be described as perfect: perfect musicians, perfect music, and perfect acoustics. It’s as though a crack in the time–space continuum has opened into a parallel universe to give New Yorkers who appreciate classical music afternoon after afternoon of aural bliss. The Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg didn’t have it better.

The series’ sense of otherworldly wonder has everything to do with the programming. Presented by collaborating institutions—New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Rockefeller University, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center & Hospital for Special Surgery—it has recently presented impeccable talent: coloratura soprano Erin Morley (accompanied by pianist Vlad Iftinca) and Faustian pianist Louis Schwizgebel, to name just two.

The perfect-world wonder also has to do with the space. The recitals are held in Rockefeller’s Caspary Auditorium, a Buckminster Fuller–esque geodesic dome designed by architects Harrison & Abramovitz in 1957. Originally covered with blue and yellow Italian tile, it now appears to be encased in unaesthetic blue plastic. But appearances can be deceiving: It’s exquisite inside—a snow-white hemisphere with circular ceiling/wall sections and a steep grade providing an Olympian view of the stage.

The performance by violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky maintained the series’ perfect record. The pairing of the two, both prodigies (he debuted at 17, she at seven), is eerily simpatico. For the recital, Jackiw and Polonsky played three pieces: Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major, and Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E-flat Major.

Stravinsky’s Suite, written in 1933 in collaboration with Polish émigré violinist Samuel Dushkin, opened with its widely recognized, upbeat Vivaldian motif. Once it moved beyond its melodic introduction, it was full of surprises—at turns morose, percussive, manic, and whimsical. To say that Polonsky played a secondary, accompanying role would be to slight the brio and verve with which she attacked her part, crossing hands, sweeping the keyboard, playing the Bach-on-harpsichord mathematician, and executing unexpected, expert glissandi. In the third movement, one heard—ever so briefly—Philip Glass precursors; in the fourth movement, a Mozartian hymn; in the fifth, the 20th century was well under way, as Polonsky’s piano pounded out the martial sounds of industrialization and Jackiw’s violin lay into a thick-timbred melody, interrupted by lingering Debussyian brushstrokes. At this point, it became clear to the audience that Jackiw and Polonsky are extraterrestrial wonders, and a perfectly matched duo.

The final two pieces, by Brahms and Strauss, were only about ten years apart—a bit too similar in tone. The ethereal Jackiw, a mesmerizing raconteur and natural performer, introduced the Brahms as the Rainfall Sonata, based on his earlier Regenlied (Rain Song). Although a young man, Jackiw credibly tackled Brahms’s nostalgic personal reflection on the passage of time, the foreshadowing of his own death, and final acceptance of mortality as the natural order of life. It was quintessential Brahms—melodic and mellifluous. Again, Jackiw and Polonsky meshed magically. This piece featured both double- and triple-stops on the violin, but it was all the same to the audience, enraptured by the musicians’ fluidity. One had the impression that a deaf person watching Jackiw’s weightless, leaf-in-the-wind swaying, in full-body, tai chi–like imitation of the liquid movements of his hands, would entirely comprehend the music; Polonsky was analogously physically expressive.

The Strauss Sonata was indeed romantic, written when he was in his early twenties and falling in love with his future wife. The second movement—“Improvisation: Andante cantabile”—epitomized Jackiw’s temperament and talent for conveying the sonic and emotional pathos we consider the violin’s specialty. Meanwhile, Polonsky’s prestidigitation on the piano pattered a hypnotic raindrop leitmotif. It was a tribute to Brahms and Strauss that both pieces gave the pianist essentially equal billing to the violinist, and a tribute to Jackiw and Polonsky that they clearly thrive on such an egalitarian ethos. Talents so great might engender egos; that Jackiw’s and Polonsky’s were entirely invisible hugely magnified their presence and magnetism, and contributed to a sense of mind-melded seamlessness.

The recital was perfect, but the entire event wasn’t. Reacting understandably to the audience’s enthusiasm, Jackiw and Polonsky returned to Stravinsky for an encore—the brief “Dithyrambe” (a Dionysian choir’s hymn and dance), the fifth movement of his 1932 Duo concertant. After Strauss’s impassioned climax, this piece came across as an afterthought—an étude—although it may have been necessary to dissipate the built-up cosmic energy and lingering awe. In that light, the entire event was perfect—of course.