Ilana Setapen and Friends
Violinist Ilana Setapen showcased her talent and her musical perspective in a Civic Music Association recital Sunday (Oct. 31) at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. She programmed Romantic music of very different sorts in sonatas by Ives and Fauré, performed with pianist Stefanie Jacob, and Bernard Herrmann’s Clarinet Quintet, featuring the clarinetist Todd Levy and the Arcas String Quartet.
Herrmann’s rarely performed quintet relates to his film music. Context enhances understanding of its romance. Herrmann was Alfred Hitchcock’s composer of choice during producer-director Hitchcock’s Freudian thriller phase, notably in Vertigo. It was never entirely clear why Jimmy Stewart fell in love with Kim Novak. Was it obsession, a dream, a part of his mental state? Herrmann’s love theme reflects this ambiguity.
Herrmann built Souvenirs de Voyage on a melody much like that in Vertigo and infused the work with the same dreamy, ambiguous mood. Levy captured that with a flowing clarinet line, backed by the Arcas Quartet. Ilana Setapen matched Levy in the frequent conversations between the first violin and clarinet. The clarinet sang of love – most likely lost. The violin matched the lyricism with soaring phrases.
The work was often languid, with the melodies floating over a bed of strings. Usually the clarinet changes the pace and pulls the players along to another phase. The formlessness did not seem to matter. This was purely romantic stuff and structure is not so important. In the third movement,a rising theme in the violin is so heartbreakingly gorgeous that the back story seems melodramatic. This was emotional, heart on sleeve, romanticism that drew the best from clarinet and violin.
Gabriel Fauré’s Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano is romanticism of a different sort. Although Fauré is classified in the late 19th Century French tradition, Setapen and Jacob read the piece as if it were more Schumann than Ravel. They treated the beautiful melodies as serious themes to be introduced and developed. Even the cheerful, pleasant Scherzo did not break that spell. Jacob shared in the themes and handled the dense, rich accompaniment. The pianist did not restrain the dynamic flourishes, but still Setapen’s violin soared above them. These two powerful partners are well matched.
Charles Ives might be an eccentric modernist, but a Romantic nostalgia permeates his Sonata No. 2. Ives borrowed heavily and obviously from traditional American songs, which he recast in a more modern idiom of minor modes and dissonant chords. The playful second movement, In the Barn, occasionally breaks into full fiddle mode, notably when sampling Turkey in the Straw. Often, a driving motif builds into a cacophony, only to have a familiar tune – such as Battle Hymn of the Republic – emerge from the ruckus. In the third movement, Ives introduces a less familiar melody. Variations on the theme shift rapidly from fast, increasingly dynamic sections to tranquil sections as the intensity steps up in each round
Setapen and Jacob slowed the pace to treasure the melodies, and they gave the music precision and focus. This was a cool interpretation of a work that could have been played more for the nostalgia.
Setapen chose a flashy encore, Antonio Bazzini’s Dance of the Goblins. (It was, after all, Halloween.) It ranks with Flight of the Bumblebee as an opportunity to show off. Many surf through the piece at high speeds. She slowed down just enough to demonstrate her technical accuracy. Only on the fastest dervish dance did she allow for some of the impossible-to-fit notes to pass in a blur.
(The Arcas and Levy repeated Herrmann’s Quintet Monday evening, on a Chamber Music Milwaukee program at UWM’s Zelazo Center. This intimate piece came to more vivid life in the conservatory’s tiny Bader Hall that in the much larger and drier Zelazo Center. The Arcas comprises Setapen, violinist Margo Schwartz, violist Wei-Ting Kuo and cellist Peter J. Thomas, all bright young lights in the MSO. The next Arcas Quartet program is set for 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 7, on the Villa Terrace Sunday brunch series.)