Evanston Chamber Music Festival provides musical warmth on a chilly afternoon

Sun Oct 25, 2020 at 12:05 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Violinist Kevin Zhu and pianist Victor Asuncion performed music of Beethoven and Richard Strauss Saturday at the Evanston Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Jeff Enejosa

About two-dozen listeners assembled Saturday afternoon on the lawn of Evanston’s Charles Gates Dawes House to enjoy what the Covid-19 pandemic has made a scarce commodity—live music. 

For this rare opportunity, they could thank pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion, the founder, artistic, and board director of the FilAm Music Foundation, who organized this fall installment of the Evanston Chamber Music Festival.

In his brief introductory remarks, the affable Asuncion referred to himself as “the genius who came up with this,” self-deprecatingly referring to the mid-40’s temperatures and chill breeze of nearby Lake Michigan—which did indeed make for an unprecedentedly cold concert experience. However, finding a way to perform a recital under the current health restrictions—with an outdoor venue, temperature checks and masks for the audience, socially distanced seating, etc.—clearly took significant ingenuity and planning. Asuncion deserves enormous credit for making it all work in the face of those challenges.

His recital partner Saturday was 19-year-old violin phenom Kevin Zhu, winner of the 2018 Paganini Competition. The young man admitted that he had “never played when it was this cold before,” but he and Asuncion delivered a compelling program in an impressive display of stalwart artistry.

The program began with Beethoven’s “Spring” Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, a reminder of the Beethoven sesquicentennial celebrations that were obliterated by the cornoavirus. The opening Allegro went with great sensitivity, and the passing shadows of D Minor in the opening bars never felt more poignant as the first live music heard in many long months. The pair conveyed the meditative delicacy of the Adagio molto espressivo, the jerky Scherzo was taut and incisive, and the closing Rondo had a simultaneous sense of propulsion and expansiveness.

Zhu then displayed his virtuosic bona fides in Paganini’s Variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento.” This solo violin work is Paganini at his most unabashedly virtuosic, and undeniably least musical (which is saying something). Zhu deftly navigated the work’s immense technical demands, with proliferous left-hand pizzicatos, harmonics, and other flamboyances unflappably deployed. The only apparent sign of strain were the bright red tips of the violinist’s left fingers, noticeable even from thirty feet away.

The program concluded with Richard Strauss’s epic, early Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18. Asuncion and Zhu projected the opening Allegro ma non troppo’s regal bearing, and brought ardor and angularity to the movement’s more contrapuntal moments. The central Improvisation: Andante cantabile had a reflective air, and Asuncion dispatched his accompanying filigree with ease. He and Zhu brought great nobility to the closing Andante-Allegro, also capturing the pathos of the lavishly Romantic second theme.

The outdoor setting made it impossible for Asuncion and Zhu to open up loud dynamics as robustly as they likely would have been able to in a concert hall acoustic. However, the simpatico pair made up some of the difference with their tight ensemble and by mining softer levels when the music allowed. These were true feats in the gelid conditions, when mere survival mode would have been an understandable approach.

Leaving the concert, one was struck by the fact that a year ago, when Chicago’s musical offerings remained abundant, an hour-long outdoor recital requiring a long drive from the city might have barely registered as something to attend. Yet Saturday’s recital felt like a welcome gift—reminding one that when Chicago’s cultural calendar fills up again not to take its plentiful musical offerings for granted.

The Evanston Chamber Music Festival presents one more installment of its fall concerts 4 p.m. Sunday at the Dawes House. Asuncion and Zhu are joined by cellist Alexander Hersh in a program of Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat Major and “Archduke” Piano Trio in B-flat Major. filammusic.foundation/about/

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