Violin madness and meaning: How one instrument proves its astonishing sonic reach

Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Jay Campbell in recital Saturday night at Hahn Hall in Montecito.
(David Bazemore / USCB Arts & Lectures )

The violin.

It’s old, tracing its roots to the ancient Greek lyre. It’s universal, with a further ancestry in East and West. You can’t get more multi-culti. It’s fine with folk, jazz and raga, and it electrifies well for rock. It fathered the modern orchestra, which it populates with up to a third of an ensemble’s total membership.

It can be the most modest of instruments, like those made of cardboard to teach beginning children in Venezuela’s poorest El Sistema nucleos. It can be the most fetishistic, with a rare Stradivarius commanding tens of millions of dollars from collectors.

Easily transportable (excepting on the more mulish airlines), it is the most popular instrument after the guitar and piano, and more versatile than either in the way it keeps evolving. Last week, from Sunday night to Saturday, three unique violin concerts, each radically different from the other, each offering something new and unusual, gave evidence of marvelously incurable violin madness.

First off, there was Andrew McIntosh’s sunset recital at Navel L.A., a hidden-away downtown loft space, as the concluding event of the “darkness sounding” festival. This was the series devised by Christopher Rountree and his orchestral collective, Wild Up, and it began the week before the winter solstice as a means for exploring the shamanistic sonic urges produced by the season’s shortest days. In some cases, it was done in the most protracted means, such as a dusk-to-dawn night of drones in a Chinatown art gallery.

Now that the days are getting longer, McIntosh, who is a particularly versatile musician, went in the opposite gnomic direction for his recital. He is a violinist, violist and composer, a specialist in new music and early music.

As the likely highlight of his final, 35th season of having revolutionized the Bay Area Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan leads a staged, radically and sexually re-imagined performance of an early Handel theatrical work, “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo,” with a starry cast featuring counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in a female role and baritone Davóne Tines, directed by Christopher Alden.


Navel’s floor-to-ceiling windows offered a noir cityscape. The audience sat in the middle of the room. The musicians circled us. The hour was late afternoon and as darkness descended, streetlights and neon provided a cinematic backdrop of loneliness. While engrossing on its own as a solo instrument, the violin loves the companionship of other strings. McIntosh, thus, invited four string colleagues to keep him company.

The earliest piece, Steve Reich’s “Violin Phase,” was a radical reinvention of the violin sonorities in 1967 and remains radical. Four violins playing patterns that ricochet in and out of sync seem to take the violin apart and put it back together in sound. In works by Cassandra Miller, Liza Lim, Cat Lamb and Tashi Wada, McIntosh’s violin droned and exploded, ever-changing in character. Two violin duos by Luciano Berio provided a delicious intimacy. The final work, McIntosh’s new Duo for viola and cello, with any number of violins, (with Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick as cellist), proved a study in sustained togetherness.

Two nights later, performance artist Laurie Anderson was at Walt Disney Concert Hall with her electric violin as part of an ad hoc jazz trio with bassist Christian McBride and the non-genre-specific cellist Rubin Kodheli. The violin has always had a special place in Anderson’s performances. Hers is such a disconcerting way of looking at our world that when words fail, or when the absurdity of life simply needs a moment to sink in, she plays an upbeat or soothing riff on her electric violin.

Anderson knows her way around the fingerboard. But rather than actually improvising with a jazz luminary of McBride’s level, she mostly set a scene with questions we can’t answer. What’s with those holograms of dead musicians showing up on our stages? Will the human race, in its despoiling of the environment, be the first species to cause itself to go extinct, leaving us with no one to tell our story?

Her violin answered in a groove. McBride embellished it with his tremendous flair. The classically trained Kodheli, who is adept at world music and has a rock band, supplied melancholy melody that seemed to come out of thin air and remind us what is at stake.

Saturday night it was the turn of maybe today’s most astonishing — and least predictable — violinist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who gave a joint recital with cellist Jay Campbell at Hahn Hall in Montecito. It is the character of a great virtuoso to make the instrument become an extension of the player. Kopatchinskaja, though, is the violin. She plays in a state of astonishment and the violin becomes her.

The recital included two of the standard violin and cello duos, Ravel’s and Kodály’s, which ended each half of the program with incomparable vibrancy. Campbell, the young cellist of the JACK Quartet, takes on the most technically demanding challenge with a nonchalance, deceptively making him here the violinist’s staggeringly impressive straight man. But it was elsewhere that the marvels took place, as Kopatchinskaja led him into unknown territory.

They began the recital with a transcription from the 7th century Winchester Collection, the earliest European two-part music, each weaving carefully around the other, melodically speaking. That was followed by the world premiere of Hungarian avant-gardist Märton Illés’ “Én-kör III,” daringly commissioned for Kopatchinskaja by the program’s presenter, UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures.

Little known in the U.S., Illés writes what looks like, but isn’t, conventional music. With an intense precision, this version of the "Én-kör” series (the composer unhelpfully translates the title as “I-circle/Me-circle”) conjures Kopatchinskaja’s violin to produce what seems like the amplification of the mind in operation. She triggers instrumental effects that occur at the lightning speed of neurons firing. The sounds themselves are ones unheard before. The strings of the violin, bowed and plucked with violence or with solace, might come from superhuman vocal cords.

Campbell’s cello has a similar function, and he was no less amazing, but it was always as if the inspiration came from Kopatchinskaja. Elsewhere the two danced through the centuries, be it Gothic period Machaut and Renaissance Gibbons, early Xenakis and Ligeti, or a pair of contemporary duos by Jörg Widmann. All the playing was technically spectacular, emotionally commanding and ever beautiful. Every phrase became a matter of life. Illés opened the flood gates. His recent violin concerto for Kopatchinskaja and the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne can be found on YouTube.

The violin, indeed.