Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang: Hearing with your eyes

Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang

SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, Nov. 29, 2014)

Hearing with your eyes was not the main thing on my mind during Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos’ recital at Hill Auditorium Sunday Nov. 23, presented by the University Musical Society.

No, I was thinking, first of all, what a miracle Wang’s pianism is, the nuance of the detail she creates, the spectrum of colors she conjures, the grand sound as round it as is enormous when she wants it. I was thinking about whether violinist Kavakos, whom I was hearing for the first time live, was a little thin in the opening Brahms sonata (the second of the Brahms threesome he released this year with Wang on Decca), and then thinking I liked the simplicity and straightforwardness of his interpretation – not just in the Brahms, but in the Schumann 2nd sonata that followed in the concert’s first half.

I was thinking about how Wang, whose fame eclipses Kavakos’ even though he’s about 20 years her senior, got top billing: Yuja Wang, piano; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. That’s pretty unusual for a violin-piano recital, even if we can say that a lot of violin sonatas (though not the ones on this bill, which also included the first Ravel sonata and the Respighi sonata) are really piano and violin sonatas and not the other way around. It’s unusual even if the sonatas on the bill do, in fact, make enormous demands, technical and interpretive, on the pianist, as the sonata’s on Sunday’s program did. She’s a “player” just as much as he is.

But you know, you do hear with your eyes, and not just with your ears.

About a year ago, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed just how much that’s true. People who saw silent videos of piano competitions could pick the actual winners better than those who also heard the playing. And it was visible passion that seemed to count.

That’s fascinating, illuminating (to use a sight metaphor), and perhaps hardly surprising.

Did you notice Wang’s Kelly green gown, hardly daring compared to some of her other concert attire, but a bit shocking still for its below-the-waist dip in back. Hey, she’s 27, she might as well have fun with her clothes. And why shouldn’t she wear 6-inch stilettos if she can pedal in them (she can) and walk in them (not so clear, though it might have been the combo of the dress pooling on the floor and the heels that were the problem).

Did you notice Kavakos, all in casual black, seemed out of a different movie? More to the point: did it bother you, or affect your hearing, that he and Wang had no eye contact? And that he was totally impassive facially as he played, that his body did not “tell” the music – a la Gil Shaham, who played here a week earlier with the San Francisco Symphony?

I love it when musicians can be still as they play their instruments. Wang, for example, is not a big mover; her posture is upright and calm, and she’s not a hummer or a grimacer as are some others who come to mind, performers whose playing I adore but whom I prefer with my eyes closed. But her face and body are expressive; she is not impassive in the way that Kavakos was.

This is not a criticism of Kavakos, it was simply a fact of this one Sunday performance. I can’t generalize. When I did close my eyes – to test what I thought of the playing without sight getting into the picture – I really liked what I heard from him (the above-mentioned straightforwardness, for example). I also thought that the two did just fine (but maybe not fab) on questions of ensemble. If you play with someone enough, the subtlest of cues will suffice. From an audience perspective, though, I wonder if perhaps a little more interaction helps us to hear, and to hear performers as a unit.

All these musings aside, I loved the concert, the first half particularly. The Brahms second sonata, is a gorgeous, intimate thing, murmuring and autumnal, seducing emotional participation in best Brahmsian fashion. Wang and Kavakos sucked me in, too. Ditto for their performance of the Schumann, less frequently heard than the Brahms and more dramatic than the Brahms, more quicksilver, too.

The Ravel sonata, which opened the second half, was a deliberate change of pace and mood, a sort of palate cleanser. It’s not as frequently programmed as the 2nd sonata – in fact, not one UMS concert since the sonata was uncovered (in the mid-’70s, well after Ravel’s death) has featured it. It has the antique Greek perfume of “Daphnis et Chloe,” which the San Francisco Symphony offered just a week before, and it’s blissfully a lot shorter. The Respighi, another infrequent visitor on recital programs, is darker and grander in its late Romanticism than either the Brahms or Schumann. It’s also more discursive than either of these. So I forgive myself if I tuned out or closed my eyes for a few minutes here or there during the playing – the better to hear. And eyes wide shut or open, its final chords were a powerful finish for the afternoon.

To see my interview with Leonidas Kavakos, visit MLIVE.

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