Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo has built up a huge fan base over the past few years and it is easy to see why. At 35 she combines an attractive and inclusive stage manner with a wonderful technique – her mellow-toned 1703 Aurora Stradivarius seems like an extension of her body.
So when in the latest of the Sunday afternoon Utzon Series she appeared with Australian pianist Timothy Young in the less intimate setting of the Sydney Opera House Playhouse, the bright intimacy of the Utzon Room may have been sacrificed but nothing else was.
In fact, with nearly twice the seating capacity, there was room for even more fans, including a rather loud baby who was miraculously silenced when the concert started with the sunny outpouring of Antonio Vivaldi’s Sonata for Violin and Continuo in A Major RV31.
In an afternoon of highlights perhaps the most surprising piece was the Soviet-German Alfred Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style, gleaned from his music for a couple of film scores. The five movements – Pastorale, Ballet, Minuet, Fugue and Pantomime – are mock Mozart at its finest and Schnittke only shows his bleaker dissonant side very briefly at the end of the work.
This is a cracking piece which shows the enormous influence his years in Vienna had on Schnittke. It deserves to be heard more often.
The rest of Gomyo’s programme mirrored her cosmopolitan background. The 35-year-old musician has a Japanese mother and French-Canadian father and was born in Tokyo and raised in Canada before she and her mother moved to New York to attend Juilliard School at the invitation of the legendary teacher Dorothy DeLay.
The Japanese side came out in Takemitsu’s Distance de Fée, although this composer was largely self-taught and idolised Debussy. This spacious and expansive early work shows that influence.
Although there was nothing Canadian or American on the programme, there was plenty of French, a language both verbal and musical which is second nature to Gomyo.
Ravel’s three-movement Sonata demonstrated her emotional command and instinctive use of phrasing. It also showed that Young is among the most sensitive and aware of our current crop of accompanists. The superb chemistry between the pair was a feature of the entire programme, the ever-attentive Young never putting a foot wrong.
Gomyo’s carefully crafted lines with deft bowing shifts, coupled with the almost throaty golden tone of the Stradivarius, were nowhere more apparent than in the opening Allegretto where the violin seems to wrap itself vine-like around the piano part.
The famous bluesy swagger of the second movement was a standout, Gomyo obviously enjoying the sliding and bending notes, while giving the syncopated rhythms of the pizzicato an extra bite.
If the Ravel brought out Gomyo’s ease with the so-called “impressionist” aspects of the 20th-century French school, with Chausson’s Poème for violin and piano both artists were in touch with the romance and eroticism of the 19th-century canon.
Composed for Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe this 17-minute work shows the instruments as equal partners – both get solo sections – before they meld in the ecstatic finale, with Gomyo dispatching with aplomb the rapid runs up and down the fingerboard.
When this piece came to an end no one wanted to break the silence, until Gomyo gave a smile of satisfaction and the applause broke out.
The running order had been slightly changed to allow the Chausson to lead into the final work on the programme, Pablo de Sarasate’s powerhouse arrangement of excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. This is like a Formula 1 workout for the violinist’s talents, from devilish double-stopping, bariolage and lightning runs using harmonics.
It was a barnstorming end to a well thought out programme, and as a bonus Gomyo gave us a glimpse of her other musical passion, nuevo tango, with an encore of Astor Piazzolla’s big hit, Oblivion.