Arts & Events

16 Year-Old Maria Dueñas’ Encore Steals The Show

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday October 05, 2019 - 05:21:00 PM

As the featured soloist in Felix Mendelssohn’s great Violin Concerto, 16 year-old Maria Dueñas gave ample evidence of a talent in the making. Then, at the Friday, October 4, performance I attended, Maria Dueñas played a riveting encore. In this work, Maria Dueñas made it clear that her formidable talent is already full-blown. But whose music was this? When she lit into this encore without announcing what she would play, I wager she had most of the audience in a fog. Whereas most encores offered by soloists are short and sweet, this work, whatever it was, was lengthy and full of challenging technical difficulties. Yet Maria Dueñas brought it off superbly. Whose music was this?  

The friend who accompanied me has a son who studied violin at Berkeley’s Crowden School; and my friend hazarded a guess that, maybe, it just might be a work by Eugène Ysaÿe. It turned out he was right. It was Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 27, by Ysaÿe, though we had to wait till the concert was over to confirm the identity of this encore by checking with the House Manager at Davies Symphony Hall. Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was such a virtuoso violinist he was called “King of the violin.” or, as Nathan Milstein put it, “Tsar.” In 1927 Ysaÿe composed his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op.27, of which No. 3 was nicknamed “Ballade.” This sonata combines whole tone scales, dissonances, and quarter tones. It sounds distinctly modern. In the hands of Maria Dueñas, it was jaw-dropping.  

At intermission, everyone was talking not about the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a perennial favourite, but the encore. And nobody seemed to have a clue about it. But everyone I heard discussing it swore that Maria Dueñas was more impressive in the encore than in the Mendelssohn concerto. I would have to agree. It’s not that she had any marked difficulties in the Mendelssohn, with the exception of a thin intonation at times. It’s just that at age 16 Maria Dueñas failed to bring any new or deeper insight to this all too familiar work. By contrast, in the totally unfamiliar terrain of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Maria Dueñas brought an exciting current of electricity to her technically formidable performance. I found myself thrilled to discover an enthralling, hitherto unknown work by an unfamiliar composer — all thanks to a 16 year-old Spanish female violinist, who performs on a 1736 Guarnarius de Gesù “Muntz” violin. 

Opening the program was Paul Hindemith’s Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass, Opus 50. This work, which dates from 1930, is divided into two parts. The First Part opens with an extended, uptempo back-and-forth between the brass and string sections. Suddenly, the music slows down on descending chords. Now we hear lush strings, with violins, violas, and cellos playing in unison, while the brass offer accompanying chords. This brief section was for me the highlight of this work. Conductor Marek Janowski led the Orchestra with a firm, sure hand.  

After intermission came Mozart’s final symphony, the glorious No. 41 in C Major, K.551, nicknamed (not by Mozart), “Jupiter.” Here, too, Marek Janowski brought off a perfectly balanced rendition of this magnificent symphony, which never ceases to please and amaze us, no matter how many times we hear it. Janowski, who is Chief Conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, made his debut with San Francisco Symphony in 1990 and returned most recently in May, 2019. Let’s hope he makes frequent returns here.