Thursday, December 17, 2009

Music review: Teen violinist Hoopes commanding at Stage West

Violinist Chad Hoopes.

By Greg Stepanich

Young violin virtuosos aren't exactly a dime a dozen, but there seem to be quite a few more around these days interested in making names for themselves.

A case in point is Chad Hoopes, an earnest 15-year-old from suburban Cleveland who opened the new season of chamber music concerts at the Duncan Theatre's Stage West, on the Lake Worth campus of what next month will be called Palm Beach State College. Budget cuts have transformed what was an excellent series of string quartet afternoons at the Duncan's main theater into a showcase for young artists in its black-box hall. Despite the scaling back, this is a canny money-saving move that promises good things, if Hoopes' recital is any indication.

Like many young classical violinists, Hoopes' repertoire as presented Wednesday afternoon features several showpiece chestnuts: the Zigeunerweisen of Pablo de Sarasate, the Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and for an encore, the Liebesfreud of Fritz Kreisler. And Hoopes plays all these in a distinctive old-school Romantic style: huge sound, heavy vibrato, and a highly emotional approach that he brought even to works by Mozart and Schubert.

Hoopes is an impressive technician whose ear is evidently quite keen; with the exception of one or two slightly wobbly, immediately corrected attacks, he had no intonation problems. His stage manner is awkwardly endearing when he speaks, and joyous when he plays. This is a performer who takes obvious delight in making music, and making it well.

The recital opened with the Sonatina in D (D. 384) of Schubert, a sweet, modest work whose melodic charms have recommended it to generations of violinists. Hoopes and accompanist Roberta Whitely were in good synch from the first bars, and the quiet dynamic Hoopes observed contrasted sharply with the large sound he then unleashed. The full measure of his tone quality could be heard in the minor-key second theme of the slow movement, a lovely tune he clearly relished playing, giving it a fat, rich, rounded sound, the kind of sound that seizes the stage and refuses to let go.

His approach in the Bartok Romanian Dances that followed was much the same. He played each of the pieces in a big manner, giving the climbing tune of the opening Joc cu bâta (Stick game) flair and soul, and brought plenty of personality even to the hushed harmonics of Pe loc (Standing still), the third movement.

The closing piece, Maruntel (Little one), received the bravura treatment, as Hoopes dug forcefully, fiddler-style, into the piece’s double stops, aggressive rhythms and folk flavor. Hoopes told the audience before starting the Bartok that he loves playing the work, and it showed.

The first half closed with Hoopes tossing off the Saint-Saëns rondo with ease and elan, bouncing speedily from lower to higher registers precisely and sylishly. Mozart’s late Adagio and Rondo (in C minor. K. 617), which opened the second half, also got the same Romantic treatment as the Schubert, and the same big sound. Pretty though the result was, a little more variety in tone production and restraint in interpretation would have been welcome here.

The one new work on the program was a theme-and-variations for solo violin called The White Wheat, written by the contemporary Welsh composer and academic Pwyll ap Sion. Its thematic material, based on a Welsh folksong, is attractive, though the scope of the piece as a whole, written as a contest piece for the 2008 Menuhin Competition in Wales, is somewhat restricted.

But ap Sion does plenty of interesting things with the theme, making full use of the potentialities of the instrument. Hoopes, who won the Junior Prize at the Menuhin, played it with gusto, particularly in the final variation, which has a skittish downward slide that was pleasantly showy.

Hoopes ended his concert with a strong reading of the Zigeunerweisen, demonstrating again his ability to handle monstrous difficulties with confidence and to give melodies full, passionate treatment. The full-figured Kreisler encore reinforced that impression.

Chad Hoopes already is a seriously good violinist who likely will be able to build a strong career, in particular because he plays in a forthright, intense way reminiscent of the Russian school and of celebrated violinists such as Joshua Bell. That likely will mean popularity, but one hopes that before too much longer he leaves aside the well-worn display pieces such as the Sarasate and leaves himself open to more challenges such as the ap Sion.

That way will lie growth and distinction, and one gets the sense from the enthusiasm he possesses naturally that he would bring nothing less than an all-out commitment to the task.

The young Canadian-born violinist and New World Symphony fellow Yuki Numata appears next in the Young Artists series at Stage West. Numata, joined by pianist Hyojin Ahn, has scheduled sonatas by Beethoven (No. 7 in C minor), Ravel and the American composer Ryan Francis, as well as movements from a Bach solo partita (No. 1 in B minor) and the Sonata No. 2 for solo violin by Eugene Ysaye. 3 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, at Stage West, Duncan Theatre, Palm Beach State College. Tickets: $22. For more information, call 868-3309 or visit

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