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[whitespace] Violin Sensations

Conductor Marin Alsop presents top violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Mark O'Conner in a razzle-dazzle concert showpiece

By Scott MacClelland

"Mark, you da man!" At last, violin virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg began to relax into her spotlight appearance in the Cabrillo Music Festival's "Three Star Gala" Aug. 9. Guest soloist Mark O'Connor had just finished playing one of his caprices for solo violin, a razzle-dazzle display piece that seemed determined to make violin playing look as difficult as possible. Of course, O'Connor made it seem as easy as pie. Salerno-Sonnenberg's spontaneous expletive was nearly lost in the roar of audience approval.

All this, and more, unfolded during "Talk and play," the first half of a concert that culminated in O'Connor's Double Violin Concerto, a work which he says was inspired by Salerno-Sonnenberg (and which he discussed with her originally in a conversation that she admits she doesn't remember at all).

"Talk and play" was hosted by music director Marin Alsop, one of whose talents is working a room, verbally, with a mike. In putting everyone at ease, Alsop had to calm the high-strung Salerno-Sonnenberg and pump up the laconic O'Connor. She persuaded the latter to paraphrase the style of his mentors, which included "This Can't Be Love" as Stephane Grapelli would have played it. O'Connor was pleased to describe his unique good fortune at being able to tour with the great French jazz fiddler.

With even more pronounced inflection, Salerno-Sonnenberg gave high style to "Bess, You Is My Woman" and "It Ain't Necessarily So," plus that Brahms rarity, the scherzo from the "FAE" sonata. Pianist Emily Wong supplied accompaniment. Taking up her own instrument, Alsop concluded the repartee and musical samplings with O'Connor's sweetly seductive Appalachian Waltz for three violins.

Alsop opened Part II with Randolph Peters' Bop, a frantic five minutes (a la Dizzy Gillespie) for crack orchestra which gives all the string players a tiny moment to solo. (The composer took a bow and got a bouquet.)

Then O'Connor's concerto returned him and Salerno-Sonnenberg to front-and-center. While the piece lasts only slightly more than half as long as the composer's solo concerto (heard a few seasons back), it does cut generous openings for violin dueling. These "anything you can do ..." episodes of call and response provoked predictable giggles. What became clear was the contrast between O'Connor's sweet Tennessee legato and Salerno-Sonnenberg's hard-bitten New York survivalism. She speaks Nashville with a Brooklyn accent.

Each movement sets a rhythm and introduces a few simple ideas. Framed by lively outer movements, twilight infuses the work's tranquil center. While the focus remains on the two fiddles, O'Connor does make a valiant attempt to flatter the orchestra. The finale, a contest between all parties, sports a big brass choir in its closing pages. If programming offers the ultimate insight into the programmer, it's plain that Alsop is never less than a performer--an entertainer--no matter her taste for new music. She has taken up a position half way between the sensual and the intellectual, meaning that those partisans of each are always guaranteed to be a little dissatisfied. But when the glass is half empty, it's also half full. Prosit.

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Web extra to the August 9-16, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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