Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: Johnson & Kong

Karen Johnson, violin
Joanne Kong, piano
May 31, Church of the Good Shepherd

Since her departure from the concertmaster’s chair at the Richmond Symphony four years ago, violinist Karen Johnson has been a busy figure in Washington area musical circles. She also has added richness and a bronzed patina to her already clean, pure tone and technique.

That blossoming of fiddle sound was displayed to great effect and at close proximity in Johnson’s performances of Edward Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor and four miniatures by Frank Bridge in a program with pianist Joanne Kong, part of the Forest Hill Recital Series of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.

The Elgar sonata is one of those pieces that could make even experienced highbrows flunk a blindfold test. It bears little resemblance to his Cello Concerto, written in the same year (1918), even less to his Violin Concerto, introduced eight years earlier, and none to the grandiose, Edwardian Age compositions that made his reputation. Its first two movements sound like the work of Schumann or some other mid-19th century romantic; its finale is more identifiably Elgar, but shorn of typically Elgarian musical rhetoric.

One gets the sense that this is the voice of Elgar (himself a violinist) in private, when he wasn’t being the Great British Master.

Johnson masterfully conveyed both the lyricism and intimacy of the sonata. Kong played more than supportively, adding much warmth and textural richness to the performance.

The Bridge foursome – “Norse Legend,” “Souvenir,” “Heart’s Ease” and “Amaryllis” – posed a different kind of challenge. These parlor pieces could become sickly sweet if played too indulgently or “expressively.” Johnson, happily, played them stylishly but without excess. Kong was comparably restrained in applying the atmospheric touches of the piano accompaniments.

The University of Richmond-based pianist got a solo cameo in two nocturnes by the Irish early romantic John Field, the composer credited with introducing the nocturne as a musical form, only to find Chopin hailed as the master. Kong, tracing the evolution of Field’s invention from the rather functional Nocturne in B flat major to the more elaborate and extended Nocturne in F major, played with delicacy and just the right tone of reticent moodiness.

Johnson closed the program with selections from the “Strings and Threads” Suite of Mark O’Connor, the popular fiddler who writes folk-accented concert works for classical violinists. Describing herself as an aspiring fiddler, the violinist played with spirit and grit, especially in “Captain’s Jig” and “Road to Appalachia.” Kong, consigned mostly to playing bass lines, even in the honky tonk-flavored “Texas Dance Hall Blues,” sustained the various grooves idiomatically.

The Forest Hill Recital Series concludes on June 14 with Three Notch’d Road: The Charlottesville Baroque Ensemble playing an arrangement of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” at 7 p.m., and the Brian Jones Quartet playing John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” at 8:30 p.m., at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Forest Hill Avenue at 43rd Street. Donations requested. Details: (804) 233-2278;