Nathan Cole is well-known as the First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But among violinists on the Internet, he also is kind of a rock-star teacher, the friendly and even-tempered expert in a series of violin technique videos that truly are helpful and inspiring.In Los Angeles, violinist
Nathan also gained recognition during the pandemic when he helped a great number of violinists across the globe to cheer up and practice their fiddles with his clever and highly successful Violympic Games - in which violinists signed on with him for series of challenges, learning pieces and etudes together and watching online master classes and workshops.
Which brings me to Nathan's performance of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" with the LA Phil Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl: here is a "Violympic" challenge, if there ever was one. Four concertos, each three movements long, all played by memory, live in front of thousands - and he nailed it.
Yes, it's been done. But that's the thing about Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" - it is arguably the most popular music ever written. We hear it in coffee houses, in elevators, in the "hold" music over the phone while waiting for a human being on the line. Aspiring violinists often learn some version of it while still in school.
Yet when you go to hear the "real thing" played live, it works its magic all over again. Vivaldi's music is highly virtuosic and impressive for the soloist, and well-crafted for the orchestra. It fires the imagination. Based on a series of sonnets about the four seasons, the music paints a vivid picture, down to a barking dog in the spring and the chattering teeth of winter.
On Thursday, the elements also seemed to collude in illustrating this picture. Just as guest conductor Gemma New was explaining the concert's theme of seasonal change, a huge meteor streaked over the Hollywood Bowl, eliciting a collective gasp from the audience. The night ushered in much cooler air, and a nearly-full super moon rose as the concert unfolded on this last day of August. With the calendar turning toward a new month and Labor Day weekend signaling the unofficial start of fall, a change of season truly was in the air.
Vivaldi wrote the "Seasons" some 300 years ago, during the late Baroque era, and that begs the question of whether or not to lean into historically "Baroque" practice - the option of using Baroque bows, gut strings and tuning to a lower-pitch "A." Instead, this performance made effective use of modern bows and tuning, with a reduced orchestra led by Associate Concertmaster Bing Wang and Joanne Pearce Martin performing on harpsichord.
While Nathan's playing was fast and virtuosic, it never seemed in a hurry. Nathan brought a beautiful sense of ebb and flow to the music, with the conductor and ensemble responding with sensitivity to the many turns. In the cadenza for the third movement of "Spring," Nathan asserted a sense of control over time, bending it in a way that made this familiar music newly interesting. Similarly, the beginning of "Summer" had beautiful voicing and really sounded improvised. Here I noticed that the Hollywood Bowl crowd had noticeably quieted down for him - he even seemed to have grabbed the attention of the gurgly baby sitting next to me, who was now watching, wide-eyed and calmed.
In Summer's "Adagio" I remembered that Nathan was making all this beautiful music with the violin once owned by Jack Benny - a remarkable instrument that was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1729, just a few years after this music was composed by Vivaldi. Amazing, the way a musician can make something sing through the centuries.
"Autumn" was full of ringing double-stops, and Nathan seemed cool as a cucumber while playing a blizzard of notes and changing on a dime from full motion to near-stillness with incredible control. The second movement brought a beautiful duet with harpsichord (shown on in split-screen on the giant monitors - I did not realize until this night that they could do the split screen!)
After "Winter" the audience gave the entire performance an enthusiastic standing ovation - well-deserved!
Earlier in the program we heard two other pieces that were themed around the "Seasons" - Jessie Montgomery's "Shift, Change, Turn," which was actually inspired by the second piece, Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons," Op. 37.
Montgomery's piece featured a sultry trumpet solo by Thomas Hooten, as well as excellent clarinet solos by Boris Allakhverdyan. Gemma New's conducting was highly physical and fully committed.
As New explained from the podium, Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons" was originally written in 1875-76 as a series of 12 character pieces for piano, to be published in a Russian magazine - music for people to play on their living-room pianos. The LA Phil played six of these pieces, which were orchestrated by David Matthews in 1989. Tchaikovsky is another composer who knew how to paint a musical picture, but in a rather different way from Vivaldi. These included the warm and comforting feeling of a fireside in January, a festive "Carnival" for February, and a beautiful waltz-like solo on French horn by Amy Jo Rhine - bringing to mind the "Nutcracker" and the dance-like quality that is often present in the music of Tchaikovsky. The June "Barcarolle" had the unhurried feeling of a summer day, with a nice duet between concertmaster Martin Chalifour and Ben Hong, playing principal cellist.
Interesting to juxtapose these contrasting versions of the seasons - Baroque vs. Romantic, south (Italian composer) vs. north (Russian composer), seasons vs. months.
Overall, a thoughtful and enjoyable program, and well-executed.
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