At 25, the flamboyant Korean violinist Amadeus Leopold (formerly Hahn-Bin and before that, Hahnbin Yoo) already counts fans in classical music, fashion, the art world and pop culture. Last year the one-time prodigy at the Colburn School and protégé of Itzhak Perlman at the Juilliard School could be found within a few Manhattan blocks, performing at Carnegie Hall, the Louis Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue, the Museum of Modern Art and at the NBC television studios for a profile on the “Today” show.” He also shows up on Madonna’s new album, “MDNA.”
He is a violinist as performance artist (yes, Laurie Anderson has taken notice as well), and along with the recent name change after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the composer’s father, Leopold, this newly empowered Leopold has changed his look as well. That involves applying ever more arresting makeup, acquiring ever more extravagant masks and throwing his bow arm up in the air ever more emphatically in victorious salute after finishing each virtuoso showpiece.
During his performance at Royce Hall on Thursday night Leopold also changed outfits as self-consciously as a teenager preparing for a hot date. There was the skirt that showed lots of leanly sculpted leg for Paganini. The leopard-skin tights and large crucifix for, you might say, a cross-dressed Catholicism suited to Messiaen. A “Don’t Mess with Texas” T-shirt was slipped on for “I Feel Pretty.” As a “Cabaret” Carmen in a tux, he became a he, as a she, as a he.
Then again, in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” a she can play a he impersonating a she. And that is precisely the problem with Leopold’s “Till Dawn Sunday” program. An intended transgressive new take on the traditional violin recital, presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, the concert felt like nothing new. From what I could tell, the traditional audience around me thought him quite cute.
The 2 1/2 -hour show was dedicated to Judy Garland. It was in four parts, each built around a theme — transgression, confession, gumption and invocation. The music, which included many flashy violin chestnuts and no big pieces, was not in the game-change mold, not, for heaven’s sake, with Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.” His pianist was John Blacklow, who also served as adoring listener holding a long-stemmed rose while Leopold played Paganini’s 24th Caprice.
There were no other credits, Leopold presumably coming up with the lighting (the stage was often kept in darkness), the stage properties (such as the wing chair and the steps for the violinist to climb — more opportunity to show off his legs), the outfits, the dance moves. He could use help in all these areas.
What Leopold has going for him is his command of his instrument, his musicality and his innate theatricality. Everything he played was aggressively (but well) amplified, so it was hard to tell too much about his tone. But his is an admirably clean sound without too much use of vibrato (which would have been insufferable given all the other excesses).
He did overplay everything, and often got away with it, as in at the beginning when Leopold turned Arvo Pärt’s spiritually restrained “Fratres” into mega spirituality. Somehow even that, in this context, was not offensive, if not particularly illuminating either.
Nothing proved, I thought, offensive, and that was where Leopold may have gone wrong. He doesn’t yet have the theatrical skills, the musical breadth or, in an era in which Lady Gaga is already the norm, the transgressive originality to shock. Ultimately he plays it very safe, and he plays everything pretty much the same.
Leopold is a young artist looking for a way to express himself and has fallen into a trap of pop culture clichés. With a much slicker set, “Till Dawn Sunday” could probably play for many Sundays in Las Vegas.
But Leopold has talent and charisma and a sense of adventure. He also has time. Let’s give him a few years, once the fickle pop world has tired of him.