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Violinist Leonidas Kavakos gives the impression of being a very serious man who takes his music and himself very seriously.
Exhibit A: Earlier this year, he sued a violin repair shop in California for $80,000 for snapping his bow when Kavakos brought it in to get it fixed. Granted, this was a professional violin restorer who should’ve known what he was doing, and it undoubtedly was not a run-of-the-mill bow (an 1850 Joseph Henry bow “mounted in and ornately adorned with tortoise shell and silver,” according to court documents). But still. Doesn’t make you look great when you’re a world-famous soloist and the guy you’re suing is some poor schlep running a small business in Burbank.
Exhibit B: He once forbade his audience from applauding at a pair of concerts in his native Greece, and instead made them sit in total silence for 5 minutes after he stopped playing. Kavakos is, by his own account, a big fan of silence. He thinks of concert halls as akin to religious sanctuaries, “a place where we can experience something together, in total freedom of mind and in silence…Silence is where everything is born,” he’s said.
This would explain the hard glare he shot at the audience when a chorus of phlegm-clearing accompanied his Sibelius violin concerto at the Kennedy Center on Thursday. Granted, this was a noisier than usual crowd (seriously, what was going on? Does all of D.C. have the whooping cough?), and the asshole in the balcony whose extremely loud conversation couldn’t be interrupted by the start of the concerto didn’t help.
Nevertheless, the crowd seemed to be feeling him, even if the feeling may not have been mutual. Kavakos is currently at the Kennedy Center for a two-week residency, which includes two programs with the NSO this week (in which he performs as a soloist) and next (in which he both solos and conducts), and a duet on Monday with NSO director Christoph Eschenbach on piano playing Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann. The NSO does these two-week “residencies”—-really just multi-format concert series for musicians and composers willing to stick around longer—-irregularly: they did one with John Adams in 2013, and will do one with Nikolaj Znaider in 2016.
But it’s hard to pin down what exactly makes Kavakos a unique draw. He is, without question, extremely good. And he’s doubly good at the piece he tackles this week, Sibelius’ violin concerto, as the only violinist to have been authorized by the Sibelius estate to perform and record the bad, original version of the concerto, which the composer later disavowed (this program is the normal version). He’s also not much of a showoff. Aside from an uncanny resemblance to John Cusack in Being John Malkovich (hey, it’s an improvement over the time he looked like Weird Al), there isn’t anything terribly distinctive about him as a soloist. He doesn’t sway like Bell, lean like Koh, or smile like Perlman. Rather, he stands perfectly still and barrels through the piece—-a remarkably difficult one, at that—-hitting each note with aplomb and little flair. He digs quite a bit with his bow, but never so much as to lose tone or creak, and he can elicit a variety of colors and dynamics in a single stroke.
Kavakos’ lower register skills are well-suited for the Sibelius concerto, which mostly occupies the G and D strings and might as well have been a viola concerto. Written during one of Sibelius’ many year-long benders (from a diary entry after a subsequent, unsuccessful experiment with sobriety: “Alcohol, which I gave up, is now my most faithful companion. And the most understanding! Everything and everyone else have largely failed me.”), the concerto is alternately brooding and feverish, probably a lot like Sibelius was at the time. Kavakos and Eschenbach take it slow, so the brooding stuff dominates: the allegro, which is normally a bright spot, is a lowlight of this program, taken at a not-particularly-allegro tempo. It’s the second movement, the adagio, in which Kavakos makes his presence felt, drawing out expressive lines for maximal dramatic heft.
Eschenbach must have been going for an all-gloomy program, as Sibelius is paired with Mahler, here his fifth symphony, as part of the NSO’s on-and-off Mahler showcase concert series. A lot like Kavakos, the NSO’s take on Mahler was good without being particularly showy, and dwells more on the slower movements. It’s a good piece for the NSO’s brass, opened by a trumpet solo and prominently featuring the horns. But the most interesting part for me was the extended pizzicato sequence, a plucked conversation between the string sections, which nicely breaks up the funeral dirge parts that precede it. Maybe more interesting stuff happened in the later movements. But it’s long, and not my favorite Mahler symphony, and honestly, I started to lose focus about halfway through (though it’s shorter than the better-loved, even gloomier ninth symphony, which the NSO did in March). Like Busoni, Mahler could’ve benefited from a ruthless editor.
Thursday’s program also paid tribute to four NSO musicians who are retiring after a combined 140 years of playing: violinists Vernon Summers, Dennis Piwowarski, Paula Sisson Akbar, and cellist Robert Blatt, who each got a framed photo and a crystal paperweight. What, companies don’t give out gold watches anymore?
The program continues tonight and tomorrow (Friday, May 8 and Saturday, May 9) at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10 – $85.