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Wednesday, October 2,2013

Prodigious pro probes Prokofiev

Ilya Kaler takes on two concertos Saturday with the Lansing Symphony

by Lawrence Cosentino
Moscow-born violinist Ilya Kaler digs some heavy inspiration on his car CD player these days: Towering Wagner duets with legendary singers Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad. Kaler is king of his own instrument, but that’s not enough for him. He has to ride it like a Valkyrie.

“We string players always aspire to sound like great singers,” Kaler said. “Unfortunately, it’s not fully possible, but we try.”

Kaler doesn’t toot his own violin, but he’s arguably the most acclaimed guest soloist to appear with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra this season. After two riveting LSO guest shots (the Tchaikovsky concerto in 2008 and the Brahms double concerto with cellist Amit Peled in 2010), maestro Timothy Muffitt is giving the violinist his grandest platform yet. Back to back, Kaler will play both violin concertos by 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev Saturday night.

“The heart and soul of the concert will be these two concertos, in the hands of probably the most qualified person on the planet to play them,” Mufitt said.

Muffitt has dreamed of this date for years.

Kaler is a world-class heavyweight, the only person to win all three of the major violin competitions, but what excites Muffitt most is the prospect of a perfect pairing of soloist and composer.

“His approach to the violin is in total alignment with Prokofiev, that mix of classical clarity and purity with the appassionato of the Russian school that he captures so beautifully,” Muffitt said.

“We’ve talked quite a few years about it, but only now it came through,” Kaler said. “It’s a wonderful dream to try to realize.”

The concert will begin and end with book-end works by Romantic-era Russians who influenced Prokofiev: Rimsky-Korsakov (Capriccio Espagnol) and that full-time chemist and part-time composer, Alexander Borodin (Polovstian Dances).

It’s unusual for a soloist to tackle both Prokofiev concertos in one program in the United States, but Kaler said they offer plenty of contrast, having been written 20 years apart. He suggested that the audience thing of the pairing as a “miniseries” with two episodes.

“The unique style of Prokofiev is recognizable, but the mood, atmosphere, the shape of the concertos and even the technique is very different,” Kaler said.

A shimmering air of mystery suffuses the first concerto. Kaler called its three movements “a choice of three dreams.”

“The greatest works of art transpose you into a dream-like state, whether it’s music or painting or literature or cinema,” Kaler said. “It’s like traveling through different planes of consciousness.”

There’s a scherzo that reminds Kaler of a toy train set. “When Prokofiev was a little kid, he was fascinated by trains, which were a new technology,” he said. “There are actually two trains going in opposite directions.

You can hear it in the orchestra.” Because this is music, the result is not a train wreck, but a sublime counterpoint.

A strange sequence that Kaler compared to “people walking on stilts” calls for the soloist to throw the book away and work out new fingering techniques.

Intermission will come between the two concertos.

“That’s key,” Muffitt said. “It will give everybody a chance to regroup.”

The second concerto finds Prokofiev swimming upstream from the modernist undertow of the mid-20th century and going into full-on “Romeo and Juliet” mode.

“He had one of the unique, great melodic gifts, which was very valuable in the 20th century,” Kaler said. “When dissonance and experimentation came to the forefront, Prokofiev kept stubbornly to his guns.”

Kaler has played with titans like former Pittsburgh Symphony maestro Mariss Jansons and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic’s longtime musical czar Valery Gergiev, but he finds American orchestral culture congenial. “There are a wealth of small cities, such as Lansing, with organized and disciplined and sensitive musicians who are really enthusiastic about what they are doing, sometimes for very little money,” he said. Last month he played the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Paducah (Kentucky) Symphony and loved it.

“They have a fantastic concert hall (The Carson Center) many big cities would be envious of,” he said.

The big orchestras have a lot of polish, but Kaler likes to engage with a plucky young crew and an audience that’s not quite so jaded.

“Sometimes you derive much more pleasure from performing in places where organizations do not rest on their laurels,” Kaler said diplomatically. “Lansing is a wonderful group, and MSU has a wonderful school of music.”

He’s also looking forward to a third goround with Muffitt.

“He’s always attentive to soloists, a quality which is sort of expected but far from met in reality,” he said. “Despite the constraints of time, he finds the time to go over difficult spots, important places. He is open to discussing things.”

Kaler teaches at the Chicago’s DePaul University, where he is proud to have made a fan out of mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell, who also teaches there. No matter how many awards Kaler piles up, he’ll never shake that singer envy.

“Vocalists play the most natural instrument of all,” Kaler said. “Comments from other musicians are one thing, but when singers like your playing — there’s something special about it.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Ilya Kaler, violin 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $15-50 (517) 487-5001

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