Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, violinist Krista Bennion Feeney (’81) gave the final concert in the Alumni Recital Series for the 2013–14 season. Playing on a period instrument, she presented a program of four composers from the Baroque period. She gave a solo performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1006 E major partita. For the remaining selections she was accompanied by Corey Jamason on harpsichord, Adam Cockerham (’13), alternating between theorbo and baroque guitar, and either gamba (Elizabeth Reed) or cello (Laura Gaynon, due to graduate at the end of this term).
BWV 1006 is probably the liveliest of Bach’s six compositions for unaccompanied violin. Of the six movements, only the Loure is taken at a slow tempo; and even it establishes forward-moving momentum through short-long rhythms on different scales. There was thus an engaging briskness to Feeney’s account of the entire partita, seasoned with a generous helping of playfulness, particularly in movements such as the Gavotte in rondo form and the concluding Gigue. She also found an entirely appropriate logic of phrasing to deal with the outpouring of sixteenth notes in the opening Prelude.
The real flamboyance, however, came at the very beginning of the evening. This was an F major sonata for violin and continuo (harpsichord, gamba, and theorbo), the third of a collection of eight composed by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber in 1681. Biber had a reputation as a virtuoso violinist, and this collection was probably created as a platform from which he could display his technique. Were it not for the continuo accompaniment, one could easily imagine the F major sonata as an almost uninterrupted flow of spontaneous improvisation, moving through a series of episodes, each of which displays some particular bowing technique or demand for finger dexterity, ultimately climaxing in a madcap race-to-the-finish coda.
Regular readers know that I like to draw parallels between Bach and John Coltrane in the matter of a seemingly unending outpouring of invention. In that context Biber wrote these sonatas before the year of Bach’s birth (1685). It is clear that Baroque practices that could be regarded as “jazz by other means” reach back even earlier than I had previously assumed!
The two sonatas following the intermission involved continuo with cello, rather than gamba; and Cockerham alternated between baroque guitar and theorbo. The guitar was used for a D minor sonata by Antonio Vivaldi, the third from his Opus 3 set of twelve published in 1709. Feeney’s account of the two Allegro movements had a spirited quality that was well served by Cockerham’s strumming technique. One could also appreciate how Vivaldi was using his sonatas to move beyond that traditional approach of dance-based suites. There are still suggestions of dance forms in this sonata, but Vivaldi was clearly exploring new rhetorical approaches to expressiveness.
That sense of departure was even more evident in the final selection, a C major sonata, the eighth in the Opus 9 of Jean-Marie Leclair, also a set of twelve. This was probably published about three decades after Vivaldi’s Opus 3, and the closest one gets to a dance reference is the final movement marked Tempo di Ciaccona. This is a far cry from the more conventional approach to this form that one finds in the final movement of Bach’s BWV 1004 partita in D minor. Indeed, Leclair’s movement is as much an adventure in structural invention as it is in thematic embellishment. Feeney thus concluded her recital with that same spirit of bold adventure she had evoked with her opening Biber selection.