There was plenty of inspiration for the many Luzerne Music Camp students Monday night as Elizabeth Pitcairn, the camp’s artistic director, took the stage for the second concert of the Luzerne Festival Series. She replaced New York City Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen, who had canceled because of a serious illness, Pitcairn told the small crowd.
Rather than change the program, Pitcairn, who just returned from California on Sunday, performed the pieces Nikkanen would have played. One of the works was Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, which turned out to be a major virtuosic study. Pitcairn said she’d been willing to keep it in the program because she and her pianist, the excellent Louise Thomas, had played it on a May tour.
From the first notes, Pitcairn set a fiery, intense mood with strong levels of dynamics spread out over subtlely nuanced phrases. The second movement had bounce with fast moving dry articulations before launching into non-stop scales at lickety split speeds. Rather than use a big sound, she played at the top of her tone. Her tempos in the two movements were so fast that Thomas sometimes seemed barely to keep up.
By now, Pitcairn had the audience in the palm of her hand.
The three other works that she played were really encore pieces written by the violin superstar of his era, Fritz Kreisler. These are very famous, short selections that Pitcairn gave plenty of schmaltz. His “Liebesleid” was tuneful and romantic. “Schön Rosmarin” was a Viennese waltz with lots of swirl and tease.
The last was Praeludium and Allegro. Pitcairn used long bows and a big sound for the first section and then strong phrases in the faster second section that was played incredibly fast. Throughout Thomas provided strong support, excellent balances and a sympathetic touch.
Pitcairn was not the only string player on the program. The concert opened with cellist Yeonjin Kim and Thomas in Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. The piano part is so soloistic with all the stylistic and technical demands of his concertos that the cello part seemed sometimes an afterthought. Thomas was superb in the obviously very difficult part — and she still maintained a good balance with the cello.
Kim did nicely in the romantic part. She’s a conscientious player and for the first three movements was a tad too cautious with the lush melodies. She eventually put her nerves aside and worked up good energy in the quickly moving last movement.
Violinist Michael Emery and violist Nathan Frantz joined Thomas for Rebecca Clarke’s “Dumka.” Written in 1940 but not published until 2000, the piece is very much a salon work with dark, melancholic harmonies and melodies. The two strings played in close harmony with the piano a gentle support. Emery, ever the showman, provided plenty of electricity, while Frantz seemed cautious. Overall, the performance seemed under-rehearsed.
At the end of the concert as if in answer to how Pitcairn manages to maintain her level of play and her career while running the camp, Pitcairn gave credit to her staff and all the volunteers who make her professional life possible.
The next concert on the series is next Monday with pianist Toby Blumenthal and the Luzerne Festival Players. On Friday, violist Sarah Sutton will be featured in the Faculty Artist Series.