Virtuosity in the Baroque Era: A Performance by Alana Cecile Youssefian

On Saturday, November 18th, 2017 I attended a performance at Juilliard’s Paul Hall by Alana Cecile Youssefian.  Alana is a recipient of the Historical Performance Scholarship and was giving this recital to fulfill requirements of a Master of Music Degree.  Her studies focused on virtuosity in the Baroque era.  After coming out on to the stage Alana gave the audience some background information on the composers of each piece as well as the works to be performed.  She informed us that all of the pieces were selected specifically because they were considered technically difficult to execute.  This was in line with her area of study.  The concert was an authentic performance style.  Alana was accompanied by a baroque orchestra consisting of nine musicians including herself.  The group consisted of three violins, one viola, one cello, one double bass, one harpsichord, one theorbo, and Alana as the featured instrumentalist.  Alana is an magnetic performer.  Her exuberance was evident and it truly filled the room.  Her execution was absolutely fantastic and during many of the particularly virtuosic phrases she looked out to the audience with a confidence that was undeniable.  There were many moments during the performance that I noticed my jaw was agape and my eyes were wide.  The cellist and the first violin were also spectacular and the interplay between Alana and the two of them was a pleasure to watch.  It was interesting to see a basso continuo live.  The double bass and harpsichord played in unison with some variation just as I had anticipated.  I arrived early and was delighted to see the harpsichord on stage as I have never seen one played in person.  It was larger than I thought a harpsichord would be.  A musician was also on stage tuning the theorbo for quite a while.  I had never seen this instrument prior to this performance.  The theorbo is similar to a lute with an long extended neck where the frets end.  Paul Hall is a gorgeous theatre.  The ceiling and walls are treated in such a way that there are no flat surfaces.  Every surface is ridged.  It is a dry hall with very little reverberation that perfectly suited the faster movements of the pieces.  The stage was ideally sized for the Baroque era orchestra.  All of the instruments were perfectly audible although the harpsichord was softer than I thought it would be.  Overall I thought the acoustics were great and supported the beautiful sound of Alana’s performance as well as the orchestra.

The first piece of the evening was by Arcangelo Corelli, an Italian composer and violinist who played an important part in the musical society of seventeenth century Rome as well as the development of violin playing.  Both Bach and Handel studied his works and used elements of it in some of their own pieces.  Corelli’s Concerto Grosso No. 4 in D Major, Op. 6 has four movements, not three as is more common.  The piece was polyphonic in texture.  Alana and the first violin were the soloists with Alana playing the main melody and the first violin playing mostly counter melodies.  After a few bars the alternation between the tutti and the soloists was clear to me.  Towards the middle of the piece I noticed the ritornello played by the tutti in the beginning reappearing in different ways.  The piece began with a short slow movement, the adagio.  It contained some beautiful chords and from the very first note played I was riveted.  The room lit up when the allegro section began.  The joy on the faces of the performers was palpable.  Alana and the entire group were grinning ear to ear.  Right away I noticed the complex fingering patterns she was expertly executing.  The first violin offered a nice counterpoint to the main melody.  The second movement followed form.  It was slow and changed from a major to a minor key.  It was a drastic change in mood from the first movement.  The first part of it was played by the whole orchestra and the basso continuo stood out to me with its descending lines.  The last few bars exhibited an alternation between Alana and the tutti again.  The next movement was fast though not as fast as the first allegro section.  The melody presented new ideas and again used the alternation between Alana and the rest of the orchestra.  In this section the cello really stood out with some great counter melodies.  The piece concluded with another fast section that matched the tempo of the first movement.  I noticed its melodies repeat a few times.  The end of this movement had a coda that contained some very fast patterns that were similar, but not identical to the patterns in the beginning.  Alana executed them flawlessly.  Alana’s performance of this piece was markedly more spirited than most of the recorded versions I listened to.  Her intensity made some of those other versions seem tame in comparison.  The piece concluded with a very satisfying cadence.

The second piece of the night was Caprice XII in D minor by Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, a French born virtuoso violinist who studied in Italy.  This piece was for solo violin.  It was one continuous piece of music and in those approximately six minutes Alana put her own virtuosic ability on display.  It was really astounding.  The opening phrase was a broken chord that made me sit up straight.  After that it was off to the races with alternation between the broken chord and fast flying runs up and down the scale.  I noticed her use of the rubato technique to emphasize some of the more particularly emotional passages.  There were some fantastic patterns with huge leaps in range.  I recognized the parts as they repeated a few times.  Towards the end of the piece there was a passage that was so delicate and quiet.  It had some amazingly difficult patterns and Alana was on top of them all.  A section from the beginning reappeared that featured alternation between broken chords and very fast upward and downward scales.  Alana’s interpretation of this piece was on par with most of the recorded versions I watched and listened to.  Most of them, including Alana’s, were amazing to watch.  I can imagine this is an extremely difficult piece of music to perform.  The piece ended with an interesting mood change, going suddenly from subdued scales to a forceful back and forth between broken chords and fast scales.

The next piece performed was Jean-Marie Leclair’s Violin Concerto No. 6 in A Major, Op.7.  Leclair was born in France and studied violin and dance in Italy.  The concerto featured a single soloist, Alana, against the backdrop of the rest of the orchestra.  Consistent with a concerto the movements were fast, slow, and fast.  The first fast movement followed sonata form.  It began with a lively melody that reminded me of Mozart.  The main theme developed in the next section with the soloist taking the lead and playing some great fast upward scales.  The main theme reappeared briefly and then Alana shined again playing more fast phrases.  The main theme came back numerous times in fragments.  The middle section featured the soloist trading melodies with the first violin.  There was some thrilling fast scales toward the end of the middle section before the main theme was almost directly repeated at the end of the movement.  There was a long pause before the next movement and some people clapped prematurely.  I knew something was coming and so I resisted applauding until the end.  The second movement was slower and had a much lighter feel yet still resembled the main theme of the first movement.  It was not in triple meter although it had a very dance-like feel to it.  The middle section changed mood and switched to a minor key.  It concluded with a nice cadence that brought it back into a major key.  The last movement was very upbeat and slightly faster than the first movement.  There soloist shined through again in this section with some impressive melodic scales that twisted and turned up and down.  There were some very high notes notes played by Alana that had such perfect tone.  It reminded me of a bird song.  The piece ended with some great back and forth between the cello/viola/basso continuo and the violin section.  Once again Alana’s version of this piece was more flamboyant than any recorded versions I listened to.  There is a tremendous amount of confidence in her playing style and stage presence.  It’s forceful bordering on aggressive. The orchestra really stood out in this piece and most of the audience stood and applauded until the musicians left the stage for a brief pause before the next piece.

The next piece was by a composer whose biographical information is unknown.  What is known is that Dario Castello was Italian and he worked at Saint Mark’s Basilica where Claudio Monteverdi was in charge of the orchestra.  His Sonata Prima from Sonate concertate in still modern, libra secondo was played by solo violin with an accompaniment of cello, harpsichord, and theorbo.  There was use of rubato in this piece that was beautifully emotional and more exaggerated than recorded versions I listened to.  The accompanists began the piece at a mid tempo.  When the soloist came in after a few bars the tempo rose slightly.  Alana again showed her amazing ability to play fast upward and downward scales and melodic phrases.  As the piece progressed there were frequent tempo shifts usually initiated by the cello part while the harpsichord and theorbo seemed to be playing similar parts.  This thickened the chordal aspect of the piece.  The middle section of the piece was slowest tempo, but not for long.  Out of a slow somber section came a sudden increase of tempo and wildly fast melodies from Alana.  Her endurance was admirable.  This mid section gave way to a definite change to triple meter and I noticed my fingers tapping along on the armrest.  This dance-like section segued back into quadruple meter at a much slower tempo to end the piece in a somewhat darker mood than it began.  The cello was prominent in this piece and it was another wonderful display of Alana’s virtuosic ability.

For the next piece a new musician, Francis Yun, came onstage to play the harpsichord, replacing Eunji Lee, for Johann Georg Pisendel’s Violin Sonata in D Major.  Pisendel was a German composer and violinist who eventually became the concert master of the Dresden Court Orchestra.  This sonata was three movements that were fast, slow, and fast.  It followed sonata form in that the main theme heard in the first movement was expounded upon in the larghetto section, however in a minor key.  The theme of the first movement was restated in the final movement again in a major key.  This piece featured a harpsichord-cello basso continuo and the theorbo which doubled most of the harpsichord chords.  In many of the recorded versions I listened to the piece was only played by two instruments, violin and harpsichord.  I enjoyed Alan’s interpretation.  The additional musicians added another dimension to the sonata.  The beginning of the piece had a nice introduction played alone by the harpsichord.  Alana came in a few bars later using more rubato in the phrasing that included trills and broken chords before the piece hit an allegro tempo.  The harpsichord part was featured heavily in this piece, but the soloist was still the main attraction.  The first movement had a beautiful melody with a lot a fast triplets that Alana played precisely with ease.  The larghetto section was a drastic change of mood and tempo.  It was a very slow and the minor key was truly sad.  The fast triplets were there again even though the tempo was painfully slow.  The third movement picked up the tempo and came back to the major key.  The trills, triplets, and theme from the first movement reappeared.  Both the harpsichord and the soloist played some mesmerizing fast scales, trills, and triplets. The piece concluded with some manic melodic patterns and an interesting upward chromatic climb that led to a unsettling broken chord.  There was another brief pause and the musicians left the stage to another standing ovation before coming back out for the sixth and final piece.

The entire orchestra came back out onstage for the final piece including an additional cellist whose name was not on the program.  They performed Georg Muffat’s Sonata No. 5 in G Major from Armonico tributo Passacaglia.  Muffat was a French born composer and organist influenced by both French and Italian composers.  The piece was medium tempo in triple meter as the term passacaglia would indicate.  I had never heard of this form until Alana described it in the beginning of the recital while talking about all of the selected pieces.  This particular piece was a great combination of the soloist and the orchestra.  They blended marvelously.  There were beautiful melodies played by Alana and the first violin again stood out playing wonderful harmonies counter melodies.  The piece was in a straight ahead triple meter and then a little more than halfway through the feel of changed enormously.  The triple meter remained, however it took on a much more dance-like feeling.  Up until then I would have been counting in three-four and when the change occurred it felt more natural to count six-eight with big accents on the one and four and triplets on the two and five.  The meter then slipped effortlessly back to the straight three four meter in the blink of an eye with more great work by the Alana who nailed all of the scale-like melodies while the first violin countered.  The end of the piece slowed slightly in tempo and concluded with some interesting chords and harmonies that went chromatically downward before ending with phrasing that directly recalled the beginning of the piece.  The musicians left the stage to a third standing ovation before coming back out to take a bow at Alana’s urging.

All in all it was a fantastic night.  Alana is a highly skilled violinist with great stage presence.  Everything about the recital was gorgeous, from the hall, to the orchestra, to Alana herself.  The entire orchestra dressed in black and Alana came out in a gold sparkling dress.  I swore I heard gasps in the audience.  Not only is Alana a superb performer, she is also a wealth of information.  It’s no wonder she is the recipient of the Historical Performance Scholarship.  Before the performance began she explained a bit about each composer and the selected pieces.  Seeing as how the recital focused on Baroque era music the overall texture of the entire recital was polyphonic, however each piece showcased different aspects of her virtuosity and knack for feeling and emotion.  The orchestra members selected matched her energy perfectly.  The joy of all of the musicians was infectious.  It really looked like a bunch of great friends playing great music at the highest level.  I’ve seen many great concerts in my time and I can honestly say that this recital was the most enjoyable live performance I’ve seen in a very long time.  I now have such a better understanding of classical music and its different forms.  It was so exciting to understand what was going on in each piece.  They all followed the forms being discussed in class all semester.  That was one of the enjoyable parts of seeing this recital.  I thought to myself a few times, this piece is unfolding exactly the way the professor said a piece of this form would.  The performance really had a profound effect on me.  From the very first notes I felt as if the music broke me into a thousand little pieces and then put me back together again in a more perfect way musically.