Bulgarian violinist,
Angel Stankov.

Four little strings can easily be swallowed up by the vast space of a concert hall, but in a more intimate setting the soft-spoken violin finds the perfect venue.  In tonight’s Cartier Connoisseur Soirée performance, held in the elegant home of Susan and Tom Schoeman, the great Bulgarian violinist Angel Stankov and Las Vegas pianist Barbara Riske filled our ears with sweet sound.

Isn’t it great how folk tunes make their way into classical music?  Angel opened the concert with two selections from Polish composer Henri Wieniawsky: first, the lively and danceable “Obertass;” second, “The Village Fiddler.”  In the latter piece, the music actually includes a brief passage simulating the tuning of the old fiddler’s instrument.  The sound is charmingly “old world,” at turns playful and sorrowful, but always sweet.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote a lovely piece called “Serenade Melancolique” whose title is sweet but whose sound is surprisingly dramatic.  (Well, no – it’s Tchaikovsky, so I’m not really surprised.)  Barbara’s piano accompaniment was funereally somber, while Angel’s part ranged from mournful to distraught.  This is a serenade?  Now I know why Tchaikovsky never got married.  Angel played the soft high notes and trills with great finesse, and the slight staticky buzz from his strings lent the softer notes an antique sound, as from an old phonograph record.  Perfect!

Georgi Zlatev Tcherkin
(1977- )

Angel is known for his expressive playing, but he also showed his technical skill in the “Russian Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet suite.  It sounded unfamiliar because, as our guest explained, the intense violin solo portion is omitted from most modern productions of the ballet due to its difficulty.  Critics of 1812, take heart: perhaps Tchaikovsky wasn’t the Britney Spears of his day after all.

Professor, soloist, concertmaster: Angel is a leading musical and cultural ambassador for Bulgaria.  He proudly told us that his “small but ancient country” was one of only two that refused Nazi demands to deport its Jewish citizens during World War II.  Bulgaria is also the birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet, which was adopted by the Russians — “though they won’t admit it,” Angel told us with a grin.  He then played “Sevdana,” an emotional piece by his countryman Georgi Zlatev Tcherkin.

Stepping up the pace a bit, Angel performed the “Romanta Andaluza” by Pablo de Sarasate.  Written in a brisk 3/4 tempo, it came off as a scherzo, but with a touch of Spanish passion.  “Humoresque,” by Antonin Dvorák, was played by Isaac Stern in a movie with the same title as the tune.  Last year I heard it played by a string quartet beside the Green River for a rafting outfitter with the same name as the composer.

Fritz Kreisler

“Was it long hair, or tight pants?” I asked in a hastily written note to the lady seated next to me.  Shakeh Ghoukasian, the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s principal second violinist, had just explained that Fritz Kreisler had been the rock star of his day and that ladies used to faint at his violin performances.  Shakeh answered my impertinent question by scribbling “Great hair and mustache” on my notepad.  No girl ever wrote THAT in any note to me back in junior high.  Or later, for that matter.

For those who were paying full attention, Angel played two of Kreisler’s tone poems, “Liebeslied” and “Liebesfreud,” both written in 3/4 time.  The first piece (“love’s sorrow”) was more refined, and the second (“love’s joy”) more rustic, with quick staccato chords.  If the first piece was a Vienna minuet, the second was a country jig.  I especially liked the playful octave jump that ended the first piece, almost in spite of the melancholy that came before.  Is there a German translation for the term “joie de vivre”?  Probably not.

Jules Massenet wrote a beautiful piece called “Thais’” about a prostitute by that name who became a nun, according to another note from Shakeh.  She wrote further that the minor-key part of the tune depicts love’s sorrow and the major-key portion love’s joy.  As I listened to Angel’s gentle andante rendition of the “Meditation” movement, I thought I detected a few notes of regret in the minor key.  Sorrow works, too.

Vittorio Monti
Benissimo!  Angel concluded the program with “Czardas,” perhaps the greatest Hungarian dance ever written in classical form — and it’s by an Italian composer, Vittorio Monti.  Strings of rapid-fire sixteenth notes (the peasant dance) alternate with occasional slow, solemn passages (the Gypsy dance), and the entire piece is full of life.  I’ve heard this piece performed by several instruments, including French Horn, and I defy anyone to keep from tapping his toes to Monti’s dance in any form.

Well, OF COURSE we demanded an encore.  Fritz Kreisler the rock star had written a very creative piece based on “ Old Suwannee River ” of all things.  “My father studied at an American college in Istanbul,” explained Angel, “so I know this piece by heart.”  He then played Edward Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour” (love’s greeting).  This melodic serenade had nothing sad about it.  Elgar was married, by the way.

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The Las Vegas Phil continues its Soirée Series on February 9, 2006 with pianist Andreas Klein, and its own Classical Series on January 14 with Las Vegas native Alexandra Le as guest pianist.  Visit www.lvphil.com for ticket information.  The music will be loud, soft, grand, and sad — but always sweet.

By Rob LaGrone, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Entertainment Editor.

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