As the polar vortex closes in on the East Coast, there are all sorts of temperatures emanating from the stage as Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk moved through familiar repertoire and a premiere at 92Y.
With the New York streets taking on the appearance of a snow globe, there were familiar sounding textures in Benedetti’s opening Bach. During the Chaconne (from Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor) she skated over triplets, moved nimbly over the black ice of upper register and landed with a satisfying scrunch on various lower notes. Her double-stopping filled out the solo Bach and continued with precision and excellence in the more muscular Prokofiev as Grynyuk joined her on stage for the Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major which had really come together by the Allegro con brio. This sort of form and partnership also returns in the closing Strauss to great effect.
Arguably the main event of the evening was the US/NY premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s new work for Nicky. This is not the first piece that America’s most celebrated genre-jumping trumpeter/composer has penned for the Scottish violinist and it was fascinating to study the differences in character, form and personality. In 2015, Benedetti gave the world premiere of his Concerto in D with the London Symphony Orchestra: it was big, it was American and it was a particular sort of gift for a soloist. Tonight, we heard an entirely different sort of intimate conversation between performer and composer. Fiddle Dance Suite for solo violin is comprised of 5 pieces that see Marsalis responding to Benedetti’s demand to be challenged. There’s a melody line secreted somewhere in ‘Sidestep Reel’ although it’s buried deep beneath the complex quadruple-stopping and changing rhythms. Nicky needs to pull some broken hairs from her bow before attacking ‘As the Wind Goes’ and smiles to herself as the brainteaser continues. This second piece sounds like a meeting place of Scottish and American fiddle traditions with fold melodies creeping in at the edges and the scent of heather practically wafting through the lamenting lines. ‘Jones’ Jig’ is a head-in-the-music sort of challenge and given the smiles that keep sneaking onto the violinist’s face as she confounds a new puzzle it’s a trial not to applaud the feat.
It is however in ‘Nicola’s Strathspey’ that we see the depth of connection between composer and performer. Here Wynton has laid a trail of tipsy plucking and a musical silliness that leads through the wobbly melody. This is a composer gently teasing a soloist through the lens of exceptional talent. The Speyside single malts are celebrated the world over for their balance of flavour and alcoholic lick — there’s plenty of these elements exported in ‘Nicola’s Strathspey’ and they’re a treat to sample. There are notes of his jazz sensibility alongside her Celtic heritage and as Nicky smiles to herself once again while taking the applause it’s impossible not to smile back.