Music Review: Sheppard Skærved, defying expectations at Blair

skaerved2British violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved and his friend, composer Michael Alec Rose, are always full of surprises. The two were at the Blair School of Music’s Turner Recital Hall on Thursday evening for a Nightcap Series performance. Naturally, Sheppard Skærved went immediately off script, while Rose defied expectations.

At the outset, Sheppard Skærved informed us that he would not adhere strictly to the program. Inspiration suggested other possibilities. So instead of opening with the anticipated selections from Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonate Piccole, he launched into Rose’s Three Short Obsessions. These brief solos, each lasting little more than a minute or two, were the first pieces Rose wrote for Sheppard Skærved after American composer George Rochberg introduced them a decade ago.

roseI often think of Rose as a composer who writes drop-dead gorgeous melodies, but in these Obsessions he takes an unforeseen path. The first piece, “Farchadat (The Joys of Yiddish),” is full of wild melodic leaps and mid-performance re-tunings. “Feroce,” the second piece, is unapologetically aggressive and astringent, while the “Interlude” concludes with insistent (make that obsessive) repetitions. Sheppard Skærved, of course, owns these works, and he played them with consummate skill and feeling.

For the past several years, Sheppard Skærved has been immersed in Tartini’s 30 Sonate Piccole, the works that occupied the great 18th-century Istrian-born composer during the final 20 years of his life. The famed 19th-century Norwegian violinist Ole Bull once said that everything he knew about bowing he learned from studying Tartini’s music. One suspects that the legendary Paganini learned a thing or two from Tartini as well.

devilstrillThe virtuosic Theme and Variations from Tartini’s Sonata No. 7 in A minor, which Sheppard Skærved played with breathtaking skill, reminded me at times of the A-minor Theme and Variations from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. It was widely speculated in the 19th-century that Paganini’s seemingly superhuman skills were derived from the devil. More likely, they originated with Tartini, the composer of the “Devil’s Trill” Sonata.

sadieThursday’s concert included selections from Australian composer Sadie Harrison’s Gallery. These appealing miniatures – which boasted titles such as “The Flight of Swallows,” “Mint tea in an Empty Medina” and “Coffee with Aphra Behn” – all found their inspiration in Sheppard Skærved’s original paintings and drawings. (Yeah, the guy is a true Renaissance man.) Sheppard Skærved played these little gems with immediacy and sensitivity. He performed Harrison’s “It Rubs Off” – about the enduring stench of the Thames – with energy and good humor.

The highlight of the evening came at the end, when Sheppard Skærved presented the world premiere of Rose’s Preamble.  This work is the first of a series of pieces that Rose plans to write about the Dartmoor area of Britain. Rose and Sheppard Skærved are both inveterate hikers who have logged countless miles in Dartmoor, exploring the region’s bogs and tors.

Because of the name Preamble, I was half expecting to hear something akin to the “Promenade” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. My expectations were again happily defied. Preamble is more of an abstract and dissonant tone poem that seems intent on suggesting Dartmoor’s terrain, which is rough, primitive and some places downright scary – don’t forget that this region was the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sheppard Skærved gave this difficult new music its due, playing every note with color, spontaneity and power.

Thursday’s concert was videotaped for later broadcast on Nashville Public Television. BMI is the new sponsor for this series, and it deserves considerable credit for supporting such a worthwhile endeavor.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.

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