Hung on the high wire

Jessica Hung’s “Concertmaster’s Choice” at the DAI

By Pat Suarez

Photo: Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Jessica Hung will perform her “Concertmaster’s Choice” May 17 at the Dayton Art Institute

Who doesn’t love a generous helping of symphonic red meat? Seventy-some musicians filling the Mead Theater with blood-pounding fortissimos, brass blazing, percussion thundering; it’s the backbone of many orchestral seasons – what we scan an upcoming schedule for when we eagerly lay our hands on the glossy brochure.

For the moment, let’s consider those musicians not as a group, but as individual artists. They came up through the ranks playing works written for their instruments: just one performer and his or her clarinet, trumpet or cello. They used these pieces for practice, to hone their skills, but many of those compositions also found their way to live audiences.

In a way, those single-performer works are as thrilling as a Mahler symphony. First and foremost, the musician is truly exposed: a wrong note from a bass player in the middle of a Brahms First Symphony will get buried; a wrong note during a performance by one oboist has nowhere to hide. Also, the audience can enjoy the notes, almost seeing the score in its collective head: pp to ff; stretches of notes that seem connected in a long line of sound. The possibilities are almost limitless.

On May 17, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Jessica Hung will venture on that solo high wire in a concert of five works that span more than four centuries. Rest assured Hung won’t need a net below her in the Dayton Art Institute.

A conductor once confided in me that the music schools in the U.S. were pouring out countless graduates who, in his words, “can play the notes perfectly, but cannot yet play the music.”

By that, he meant these young players could not yet project the style and meaning that lay under the notes. Generally, an orchestra musician spends decades getting to the point where Mozart really sounds like Mozart. But, defying convention, Jessica Hung, not yet 30, is already there. She plays the notes and the music as if she had been on stages for decades. So, her solo concerts have a cachet unlike most others.

We asked Jessica for her thoughts on the music and the violin that she plays.

Your program spans a few centuries. In terms of mechanics, playing the violin, what do you have to do differently for each work?

Jessica Hung: The biggest gap in time span and style is between the Bach partita and the other works on the program. The Bach can be considered the most artistically difficult piece, in that there are a wide range of performance practices, generally categorized as either modern or period-based, for Baroque music (such as variations in rhythm and ornamentation), and as an individual artist I must decide both what works for me and also what best captures the essence of the piece. The rest of the program is quite technically challenging as well, as Ysayë, Kreisler, Hindemith and contemporary composer Sean Neukom were/are all violinists whose music has impacted the progression of virtuosic violin technique.

Do you have a favorite classical music era?

JH: My favorite era would be late Romantic/early twentieth century. During that time, the bounds of tonality were stretched almost to a breaking point, but tonality nevertheless remained of vital importance. The tension of complex and dissonant chords held greater richness and emotional weight due to the satisfaction of still eventually returning home to a particular key or tone.

Tell us about your instrument. Do you play one violin or do you have different violins for different kinds of works?

JH: I play just one violin but it is a beautiful instrument. It is an eighteenth-century Italian violin with a very robust sound that projects well and can be both warm and brilliant.

What brought you to the violin?

JH: My first instrument was piano at age 7, but I quickly switched over to the violin a couple years later. I felt at home with many of the violin’s inherently expressive qualities: the resonance of the strings, the warmth of vibrato and the lyricism of the bow.

Tell us your thoughts on each of the works on the program. How did you select them as a program?

JH: The first two pieces on the program are paired together because the Ysayë sonata is actually an homage to the Bach partita. The Ysayë is nicknamed “Obsession” and includes direct quotes from the Bach, sprinkled throughout the main theme which is itself the “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”), a Latin hymn. The Kreisler and Hindemith pieces require technical agility and artistic sensitivity in equal measure. The Neukom sonata was written specifically for this performance, and I am honored to give its world premiere. Sean was my college classmate and is a tremendously talented composer. His music is both current and timeless, and his style seems to have grown organically out of the other featured composers’ traditions into its own unique voice.

The program:

Bach Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006

Ysaÿe Sonata for Solo Violin in A minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Jacques Thibaud”

Kreisler Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice for Solo Violin, Op. 6

Hindemith Sonata for Solo Violin in G minor, Op. 11, No. 6

Neukom Sonata for Solo Violin No. 1

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Jessica Hung will perform her “Concertmaster’s Choice” Sunday, May 17 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North, at 3 p.m. Tickets cost $22 for adults, $20 for seniors and $14 for students and children. For more information, please visit daytonperformingarts.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Pat Suarez at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Pat Suarez
Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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