Paganini in Nashville

Posted on September 21st, 2011 by

Paganini in Nashville 

Ingram Hall, Vanderbilt University 19-9-11

 I don’t usually post reviews, but this provides a sensitive overview of the project.

‘Violin Soliloquy ‘-by John Pitcher ARTSNOW NASHVILLE September 20 2011

You knew violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved was up to something the moment you walked into the Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall. Instead of steering us into the auditorium, ushers on Monday night led us onstage, where chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle around a podium. Clearly, this performance was going to be up-close and personal.

 Skaerved, a London-based virtuoso, has pioneered a hybrid-style of performance that is part one-man show, part violin recital. The theme for this concert was the legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini’s London debut in 1831. Skaerved would introduce each violin piece with a reading, often from one of the poets, wits, litterateurs, essayists, politicians or courtiers who might have been present at the historic concert.

 Skaerved read these monologues with the rapid-fire delivery of one of London’s great 19th-century raconteurs, and he seemed to thrill in making improbable associations of the Kevin Bacon, six-degrees-of-separation kind.

 For instance, he noted that Paganini gave his first concert in Italy with Luigi Marchesi, a famed castrato singer. Marchesi had a brief love affair with the artist Maria Cosway, who later had a romantic relationship with Thomas Jefferson while he was ambassador to France. This story was used to introduce composer Elliott Schwartz’s Jefferson – Soliloquy and Remembrance.

 Although Paganini was the theme, Skaerved used his concert format to indulge his dual interests in both historic performance practice and contemporary composition. Naturally, he played some of Paganini’s famed virtuoso caprices. But he also played an early Baroque piece along with contemporary works that had been written expressly for him. Several of these new pieces were dated August 2011, meaning that the ink on these manuscripts had barely had time to dry. Skaerved, nonetheless, played them as if they were old friends.

Skaerved opened with early Baroque composer Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonata No. 16. Biber was arguably the greatest violinist of the 17th century – hence his place on a Paganini-themed concert. The Rosary Sonata No. 16, an extended passacaglia in G minor, dates from 1676 and is widely viewed as one of the greatest violin pieces written before Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. Skaerved gave this music an authentic interpretation. He used a period bow and was conscientious about playing with as little vibrato as possible. The end result was a performance that was tasteful and stylish.

Two local composers – Michael Alec Rose and Paul Osterfield – were both represented on the program. Rose, a professor at Blair, composed a contemporary Air, a mellifluous piece that seemed intent on testing the violinist’s interpretive skills. Skaerved played this music with great sensitivity. Osterfield, a Middle Tennessee State University professor, recently composed 24 Paganini-like caprices that are real finger-twisters. Skaerved played several of these pieces, including a clever one that riffed Paganini’s trick of playing virtuoso music on the G string alone.

Skaerved played the music of two other contemporary composers. Australian-born composer Sadie Harrison’s Ballare un passacaglia di ombre was remarkable for its subtle shading and delicate trills. Schwartz’s Jefferson – Soliloquy and Remembrance was the most unapologetically modern piece on the program, a work full of jagged melodies, thorny rhythms and unusual effects – at one point the violinist sings words from the Declaration of Independence. Skaerved gave thoughtful and imaginative accounts of both works.

Not surprisingly, Skaerved’s most memorable performances were of select Paganini caprices. The Caprice No. 13 in B-flat major is nicknamed the “Devil’s Laughter” because of its diabolically difficult double-stop passage – music that indeed sounds like a fiendish chuckle. Skaerved tossed it off seemingly without effort. He was equally successful in the Caprice No. 6 in G minor, “The Trill,” a study in left-hand tremolos that inspired Franz Liszt to write his first Grand Etude after Paganini.

Skaerved has been a regular visitor to Nashville since 2004, when he first performed here at Rose’s invitation. He now visits the city regularly as part of an exchange program between Blair and London’s Royal Academy of Music. He’ll return to Blair with the exchange program next spring, and serious music lovers would do well to seek him out