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Morse Code

by Lucy Gellman | Jan 27, 2014 12:00 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Music

A rustle of sheet music, whispering groan of bones readjusting, and then, suddenly, there it was: Wendy Sharp gave a furtive glance at the other musicians onstage, and as if the solution to a great, complex code, Morse Recital Hall was filled with Leó Weiner’s robust, Romantic tones.

Seamless, wordless communication had as much to do with the music as the notes did when Sharp, critically acclaimed violinist and Yale professor, performed works on a broad Hungarian theme by Leó Weiner, Béla Bartók and Johannes Brahms Sunday evening with violist Marka Gustavvson, cellist Mimi Hwang and pianist Melvin Chen, a performance intimate enough to banish the plummeting temperatures outside.

Sharp is a dynamo, relaxed and conversational when she is introducing a piece but fiery and focused when she performs, yet she never allows her voice to dominate.

Like old friends – which the four musicians are – the artists’ instruments sang to and conversed with each other with great alacrity from the outset.

A furtive glance among Sharp, Gustavvson, and Hwang at the beginning of Weiner’s Mendelssohnian String Trio in G Minor (1908) set the scene for a delicate layering of melodies that left even the youngest and unruliest members of the audience rapt at attention.

While the three, who learned the piece together after discovering Weiner’s work last year, don’t give away their secret – a dialogue consisting exclusively of quick glances, wild shoulder shrugs, pursed lips, sudden smiles and feather-light hands on respective bows – Sharp hinted at it after the performance, explaining: “You have to know your partner’s part as well as your own.” 

This approach, paired with her consistent goal to “express the composer emotionally ... [to] send the message of the piece,” remained particularly important during Bartók’s haunting Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano, Sz. 76. BB85 (1922), a two-movement composition in which piano and violin remain intentionally discordant. While Sharp’s back remained to Chen, leaving physical interaction at a minimum, a deep aural bond was palpable between the two as the piece grew increasingly schizophrenic. “I know when he goes buhmmmmmm, it’s my turn to go bummmm,” she said after the performance, miming a keyboard beneath her fingers.   

Such acute awareness extended to not only Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25 (1856-61), Hungarian strains of which drift through the gypsy-inspired fourth movement, but also to the audience. In the front row, one member raised his arms reverently between movements and after each piece, palms outstretched to Sharp in a gesture reserved for poetry slams and Church gatherings. Others leaned forward, eyes closed and ears cupped; a few rocked rhythmically.

The key, Sharp explains, is simple enough: “I get to play with the dream team.” We should all be so lucky. 

Wendy Sharp and Friends was part of Yale’s spring 2014 Faculty Artist Series. To find out more about this series and other upcoming events, visit the Yale School of Music online.

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