Review: Rachel Barton Pine and Inna Faliks Show Off the Blues at Ravinia

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine and pianist Inna Faliks gave a lovely recital at Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall on Saturday night. The program included bluesy and soulful modern music by African American composers from Pine’s CD release Blues Dialogues from 2018 on Cedille Records. The concert also included music by European composers influenced by African music and musicians.

Pine and Faliks made the concert very entertaining by explaining each work and how their lives as artists were impacted by the composers they knew. It gave off a nice audience rapport. The playing was also great, but ensemble balance did not always come through. The concert’s only blemish is that Faliks’ excellent piano often over-matched Pine’s brilliantly played violin, which sometimes seemed buried in the sound.

The concert opened with a work for solo violin from Blues Dialogues, a suite of the same name by Dolores White. This Chicago native, who spent most of her musical career in Cleveland, died earlier in 2023 at the age of 90. Pine fondly recalled her experiences meeting White and sharing musical experiences with her.

Rachel Barton Pine. Photo courtesy of Ravinia Festival.

The four movements of Blues Dialogues provided a great opportunity for Pine to express a wide range of emotions, as she carefully bowed and plucked the strings and ran her fingers up and down the fingerboard. In the second movement, “Expressive,” Pine showed excellent dynamic variation, with some phrases starting loud, and quieting down until they vanish in a glissando.

It is hard not to compare a work for solo violin with the standards set by Johann Sebastian Bach, and, in Pine’s hand, White’s piece held up well. Pine was able to create several simultaneous melodies from an instrument that only has four strings, only two of which can make sustained sounds at once.

Faliks joined the stage for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47. This sonata is typically referred to as the “Kreutzer Sonata,” but Pine used the original “The Bridgetower Sonata” name and described the interesting occasion of its composition for violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, who was of African descent. Originally good buddies, they had a quarrel over a woman, and Beethoven removed the dedication to Bridgetower. Instead, he bestowed it on violinist Rudolph Kreutzer, who, ironically, never ended up performing it.

The opening movement of this sonata has all the hallmarks of the new musical style Beethoven was introducing to the listening public at this time. It’s driving, it’s passionate, and it’s intense. Faliks and Pine really showed precise technique. The clarity with which Pine played the rapid passages toward the end of the exposition was delightful, but this is where the overpowering piano got in the way, as Pine could hardly be heard.

Inna Faliks. Photo courtesy of Ravinia Festival.

It’s always a sign of a good performance when a work I’ve never really enjoyed is given new life. Both Pine and the program notes referred to the popularity of a set of variations in the second movement, which had to be encored at the premiere. I’ve always found them to be rather ordinary and dull. This performance pulled everything out of them. Same goes with the finale, the main theme of which I’ve always found to be rather lame. Pine and Faliks delivered some great excitement. While not perfect, their performance raised the stature of this work in my ears.

The second half opened with three works by African American composers. Faliks explained the significance of William Grant Still to African American classical music in the middle of the 20th century. His spiritual Here’s One was originally composed for solo voice and piano. The program notes explained that Still’s friend and collaborator violinist Louis Kaufman transcribed it for violin. In a very short piece, Pine and Faliks were able to extract intense emotions. While a spiritual, it came across as a wistful love song. It was wonderful.

Still also composed the third work of the second half, a three-part Suite for Violin and Piano. Pine noted how this suite always moved her. But the second movement “Mother and Child” had increased significance after the birth of her own daughter Sylvia.

Between the two pieces by Still was a moving tone poem, Incident on Larpenteur Avenue, in which Billy Childs commemorated the tragic shooting outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2016, where an African American was killed by a police officer at a traffic stop. Faliks explained the effect this incident had on Childs, an African American pianist and composer from Los Angeles. She also explained how both she and Pine have worked with Childs on several occasions. Pine commissioned the work for Blues Dialogues.

The piece’s intensity and dramatic rhythms, mixed in with moments of quiet reflection, painted a moving picture, complete with shots being fired. Pine and Faliks wonderfully conveyed the overall shock and sadness of the occasion.

Closing the program was Violin Sonata in G-Major by Maurice Ravel. Pine shared about how much she loved doing musical research and described how she found the sheet music for this sonata in the music store in the Fine Arts Building. As mentioned in the program notes, the piano and violin parts almost seem separate and detached, but I heard a nice unity on Saturday night, even if Faliks was a little too loud at times.

The second movement opens with Pine strumming her violin like playing chords on a guitar. Faliks soon took up the chords as Pine played a wailing tune. The third movement finale was perfectly described by its name: “Perpetulum mobile.” It’s a fired-up tune that goes ever forward like an unstoppable train. Pine and Faliks gave it the right locomotion.

As an encore, Pine and Faliks played an Adagio by Fannie Mendelssohn Hansel. Faliks introduced the work by the sister of Felix Mendelssohn. She also noted that the Mendelssohn family were Jewish, and that she personally had felt impacted by antisemitism resulting from the war between Israel and Hamas currently raging in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Faliks expressed pride in wearing a star of David.

This Friday, Ravinia is hosting the Lincoln Trio at Bennet Gordon Hall. Their program includes Joaquín Turina’s Piano Trio No. 2 in B minor, op. 76, Stacy Garrop’s Repair the World (Tikkun Olam), and Johannes Brahms’ Trio no. 2 in C-major, Op. 87. November 10, 2023, 7:30pm, Highland Park. Ticket information may be found here.

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Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.