On September 15, violinist Vijay Gupta, cellist Joel Noyes, and Kuchipudi dancer Yamini Kalluri had intended to present “Beyond Borders”, a multidisciplinary Groupmuse event combining poetry, classical music, and dance. The lingering existence of COVID-19 unfortunately necessitated a change in the programming. With Kalluri having tested positive the morning of, the remaining performers regrouped on this evening in Brooklyn, NY at Christ Church Cobble Hill that celebrated the eclectic and the intentional.
20th century poet James Agee’s “Descriptions of Elysium” is most famous for a passage that begins: “Sure on this shining night / Of star made shadows round”. Having inspired composers Samuel Barber in 1938 and Morton Lauridsen in 2005, it clearly resonated with Gupta that night — in a program almost entirely performed from memory, he wove in a recitation of that text with a performance of Bihag, the first movement of Reena Esmail’s Darshan, named after the raga for the first hours of the night. The combination of extreme virtuosity and a diversity of timbres that would characterize the evening was on full display almost immediately. Gupta perfectly controlled flutterings between false harmonics and root notes even high up on the fingerboard, and his drones against seemingly-improved lines were so pitch-accurate it was hard to believe at times that it was the work of one instrument.
Esmail’s music is often characterized by a blend of aesthetics, which carried over into the Sonata for Violin and Cello that followed by Maurice Ravel. Noyes joined Gupta on stage at this point for the only ensemble work and the only work not performed by memory, though the two musicians’ mastery of the piece made it clear they likely could have performed it as well upon request. The fiendishly challenging Sonata is nevertheless one that also draws deep roots from the improvisational; Noyes offered earthy pizzicato bass lines in the third movement and a devotion to texture that was transporting in the haunting first and fourth movements.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita in D Minor (BWV 1004) from his Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin was the oldest, longest, and arguably the most demanding work on this strenuous program. Gupta made reference to Johannes Brahms’ famous quote when presenting his own transcription of the Chaconne final movement for piano to Clara Schumann: “If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.” Indeed, Gupta’s performance of this lofty work veered away from stony-faced angst and one-dimensional severity to uncover the more complex joys and melancholies in each movement, perhaps paying tribute to Bach’s choice of Italian names for the individual movements rather than ostensibly more staid French.
Taking up a Baroque bow, he rendered a moving Allemanda, a raunchy Corrente, and in particular, an earthy and even sensual Sarabanda reminding listeners of its origins as a possible cultural import from the Caribbean or modern-day Mexico and its later banning in Spanish courts. His Giga was fast and furious but still retained genteel elements in its major sections, leading into an exploratory Chaconne. Gupta dispensed with a metronomic approach to pulse in the Chaconne, opting for a more improvisatory feel that in a less capable violinist’s hands might have confused listeners. Instead it offered space for listeners to connect with each musical section separately and in context. Gupta communicated tragedy, brilliance, and reverence in turns: a complete musical conception.
The finale was another offering by Reena Esmail, When The Violin, inspired by another poem by 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz of the same name that Gupta once more used to introduce the work. Holding onto his Baroque bow, the violinist dove into this melismatic piece with aplomb, bringing out the romantic elements of the Charukeshi raga it operated within. Its whispering ending — with a double-stopped false harmonic that seemed like an impossible reach for the left hand — brought the audience to its feet for a well-deserved standing ovation.