With a storm outside, Beilman and Weiss provide musical sustenance

Benjamin Beilman
Boston Classical Review

Benjamin Beilman’s Celebrity Series debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall proved to be an evening of the unexpected.

First was the weather. Boston’s second Nor’easter in a week was projected to dump up to ten inches of snow in the area. Fortunately, the storm held off until later in the evening, making the commute to the concert relatuvely safe.

Beilman’s program diverted from his originally scheduled selection, and the audience was treated to music by Mozart, Beethoven, and Fritz Kreisler instead of Bartók. The New England premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s Demons, though, went on as planned.

The 28-year-old violinist is rapidly rising into the front ranks of soloists on the scene today. He plays with sterling technique and a kaleidoscopic sound that recalls that of his teacher, Christian Tetzlaff. His timbre shifts colors on a dime: sunlit phrases turn dark and then silvery within a single passage.

In Rzewski’s Demons, those colors drive the music forward. Like much of the American composer’s music, this four-movement sonata involves a political theme. Moved by the speaking of activist Angela Davis, the work’s dedicatee, and by the results of the 2016 presidential election, Rzewski explores in music what he sees as the irrationality that drives much political thinking. “I am not religious, and I don’t know much about devils and such,” the composer said in his program note, “but as an artist I cannot help feeling sensitive to whatever it is that awakens these ideas in humans, causing them to go crazy.”

Demons draws upon political songs for its sources. The second movement muses upon the spiritual “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” a song well known during the Civil Rights era, which unfolds through haunting passages for both violin and piano.

But aside from its political message, Demons is a work of stunning power and simplicity. In its 30-minute length, the music traverses from agitated statements that would sound at home in Steve Reich’s music to passages of sparse dissonance. Ever the experimental composer, Rzewski even calls for the pianist to dampen and pluck the strings for halo effects and metallic sonorities. Once-popular styles shade the work as well. The pianist called upon to unleash torrents of jazzy riffs in the final movement while the violinist performs the languid parts of the score with bluesy slides. 
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