TWO YOUNG ASPIRING VIOLINISTS
Stephan Jackiw, violin; Max Levinson, piano, Vancouver Playhouse, November 21, 2010
Nikki Chooi, violin;, Yekwan Sunwoo, piano, Kay Meek Centre, November 28, 2010
In successive Sunday concerts, the Vancouver Recital Society sponsored violin recitals first, by the 25 year-old Korean/ German violinist Stephan Jackiw, and then by our own 21 year-old Victoria, BC native Nikki Chooi. The latter now studies at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, as does his accompanist, Yekwon Sunwoo, originally from AnYang, Korea. Both concerts were enjoyable not only because the programmes chosen were so varied but also because the talents of each violinist meshed so closely with his piano accompanist.
Stephan Jackiw is the more intensely-emotional and subjective violinist of the two. He does not produce a particularly warm tone; it is a thinner, sharper response, capable of producing much electricity as well as a wonderfully-controlled inward feeling in quieter passages. These characteristics were a perfect match for the modern Copland Violin Sonata (1943), a simple yet powerful wartime work, and the more minimalist, ultra-modern ‘Subito’ (1992) of Witold Lutoslawski. Both received excellent readings. As for the classic Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3, the result was often dramatic and exciting but it did reveal a tendency for the artist to ‘rush the fences’ slightly: he would often speed up his bowing to ‘will’ a climax rather than patiently letting the emotional peak flow from the music as such. This produced some rather unclean articulation and tone, and broke the natural flow of the music, a tendency noted to some degree in the opening Mozart sonata as well.
While Stephan perhaps flirted with the dangers of over-projection, there was certainly more reserve in Nikki Chooi’s playing. The latter has a warm and cultivated tone, structures the music broadly and patiently, and exudes both intelligence and refinement in his music-making. I thought his opening Suite Italienne by Igor Stravinsky may lack neoclassical ‘bite’ but it really highlighted his elegance and his ability to sustain lyrical passages with feeling and tone colour. The lovely Ravel Violin Sonata, with its innovative ‘blues’ movement, had its moments too, well structured but this time perhaps not having enough flexibility of phrase to go with it.
After the intermission, however, Nikki turned up his intensity and concentration. He gave a most intelligent reading of Bach’s difficult Solo Violin Sonata No. 1, a very sensitive and lyrical performance of Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces, and a absolutely commanding rendering of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy (see his YouTube performance). The last showed just how powerful and virtuoso this artist can be if needed, and what a wide range of resources he has overall.
It was an inspired idea to have these two recitals so close together. I thoroughly enjoyed the nine different works featured and I responded very positively to both artists. While Stephan Jackiw is older and has more international exposure at this point, I am convinced that Nikki Chooi has at least the same long-run potential. While it is always suspicious to favour the ‘home-town boy’, I did think that the latter part of his concert was probably the best violin playing we saw.
© Geoffrey Newman 2010