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Virgil Boutellis-Taft by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Virgil Boutellis-Taft (photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Concert Review: Violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft with Pianist JuYoung Park at Carnegie Hall (June 12, 2024)

French violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft had just released his new album with the Royal Philharmonic, Incantation, when COVID struck. His planned appearance at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in April 2020 was among the thousands of concerts around the world canceled by the pandemic.

Fortunately, we had the album, which brought together a bewitching combination of composers and pieces. At the violinist told us at the time, the title was “a tribute to the incantatory power each [selection] has, by virtue of the lyricism and the beauty of the melodies, of the haunting and obsessive effects of the rhythms and repetitions, of their ambition both spiritual and sacred.”

I can now report that the music retains its incantatory power when stripped down to violin and piano. Boutellis-Taft and pianist JuYoung Park demonstrated this last night at Zankel Hall, where the concert finally took place after more than four years of delay.

Starting off with an Incantation

“Incantatory” is exactly the word for the first piece on the program, the “Kol Nidrei” by Max Bruch. In this gripping performance we heard right away the honeyed, pillowy tone Boutellis-Taft can draw from the 1742 Domenico Montagnana violin that he plays. He and it are capable of a variety of contrasting effects too, as we heard later.

Bruch’s arrangement captures the stark seriousness of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual declaration. Through their understated performance Boutellis-Taft and Park revealed their ability to express the music’s full import without unneeded flourishes.

Unsurprisingly, the violinist did not confine himself to the repertoire of a project from 2019–2020. In fact the weightiest element of the first half was Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Minor. In this piece the two instruments are more partners than soloist-and-accompanist, and Park’s rich piano tone came to the fore in the first movement. Schumann’s passions emerged in waves, the two musicians sounding as one. Accents were firm but not overdone, dynamics and contrasts expressive without garishness.

The Allegretto sounded homey and charming, played with the well-oiled ease that comes from deep understanding of the music and thorough preparation. The finale, though denoted “Lebhaft” (“Lively”), goes beyond the merely energetic, dipping into frenzy that threatens to boil over. During this glorious performance I got the impression of a ship steering resolutely through some very bad weather.

That made Tchaikovsky’s haunting and touching “Sérénade mélancolique” a nice capper to the first half of the concert. Here Boutellis-Taft’s fondness for tasteful glissandos was particularly evident. Amid the piece’s relative simplicity and straightforward harmonic motion, the pair niftily excavated its dramatic depths.

A Jolting Sonata

They returned after intermission to play the Violin Sonata of Leoš Janáček. This is not a favorite of mine among the Czech composer’s ouevre, but the musicians gave it an admirable performance. As the first movement shifted between aggression and tenderness, Park achieved superb pianistic effects, while Boutellis-Taft found vivid colors. After the rather indulgent second movement, the warlike Allegretto set up the final movement’s strange dialogue and jolts of violence.

Reflecting the incantatory theme, the “Nigun” of Ernest Bloch received a transportive and deeply felt reading. The violinist’s formidable double-stopping, along with his technique of striking the string hard enough to generate distortion, magnified the pathos.

The program closed with a piano-and-violin transcription of Saint-Saëns’ famous “Danse macabre,” a piece I always associate with an animated film they showed us on Halloween in music class in elementary school. This rollicking version bares the music’s bones (so to speak), making me hear it anew.

Applause, at first hesitant but then rousing, arose when Boutellis-Taft introduced as an encore an arrangement of a traditional Jewish melody, “Chanson d’Exil.” The words of the poem lament the loss of home in the wake of a pogrom. A painful association indeed in present times.

Incantation is available online and at streaming services. Visit Virgil Boutellis-Taft’s website for his upcoming schedule.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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