Violinist Aisha Syed brings warmth, virtuosity to Zankel Hall recital

Fri Oct 11, 2019 at 3:07 pm
Violinist Aisha Syed and pianist Martin Labazevitch performed Thursday night at Zankel Hall at an event presented by the Dominican Heritage and Cultural Society. Photo: Felix Grant

Aisha Syed may not be a household name in the world of the classical violin, and probably won’t become one anytime soon. But she brought a refreshing program of short, snappy works to Zankel Hall Thursday night as part of the Dominican Heritage and Culture Society’s 3rd Annual Concert: Heritage. The tour is designed to gain awareness for the Dominican Republic’s dedication to the arts and to provide scholarships for worthy students.

After 20 minutes or so of tributes to the Dominican Republic Heritage and Culture Society, advertisers, sponsors, and board members, the featured soloist and her accompanist, pianist Martin Labazevitch, launched into a program of encore favorites blended with selections from composers whose works deserve to be heard more often. The general feel of the program was festive, but subdued, a musical holiday suitable for a luncheon soiree.

The program opened with 20th century composer William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano, an ebullient dialogue that weaves jazz motifs with classical influences. It was both refreshing and instructive to hear this excellent composition — often performed among other Still works during Black History month — presented on its purely musical merits and given a spirited rendition by both musicians. There was some confusion because the work was listed twice in the program, and the enthusiastic audience burst into applause several times, but Syed, a true professional, kept on playing with poise and confidence.

The program continued with Enrique Granados’s familiar Spanish Dance No. 5 and Aram Khachaturian’s sultry dance from the Gayaneh ballet. The latter featured some bold attacks on the violin, and a rhapsodic response in the piano. A not-so-deep performance of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River, a lyrical reflection on the Gospel tune, followed, with some heartfelt playing by Labazevitch. While the violin expressed some uneven intonation from time to time, the shape of the work was intact, conveying dreamy sonorities that wafted gracefully into the final stratospheric high notes.

The first half of the program ended with Camille Saint-Saens’s devilishly difficult Introduction and rondo capriccioso, Op. 28. Under facile fingers, Syed’s violin swept neatly between high and low registers. The performance may have been a little short on emotion, but the performers retained the overall integrity of the work with professionalism and feeling.

Intermission was followed by a showpiece from the 19th century virtuoso Henryk Wieniawski. The Original Theme and Variations in A Major, which falls aesthetically between “Carnival of Venice” and “Bugler’s Holiday,” gave Syed ample opportunity to show her mastery of violin techniques such as spiccato (bow bouncing) and a combination of pizzicato and flowing legato within the same measures. 

Syed proudly introduced a short work by her countryman, Rafael Solano, titled, Una Primavera para el Mundo (Springtime for the World), an uplifting melody bridging popular and classical sensibilities. Syed could have used a bit more swagger in Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, but Labazevich ended the short selection with understated flair. Short works by Isaac Albeniz, Fritz Kreisler channeling Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in a medley of Scheherazade tunes, and the popular tango, Por Una Cabeza by Carlos Gardel, preceded the finale: Selections from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, performed with spirit, technical finesse, and balance. 

Syed’s great strength is grace under pressure, an aura of mastery, and the ability to present in many different styles and cultural attitudes with sincerity and skill. Kudos to the Dominican Heritage and Culture Society for using the concert hall as a platform to inspire musical education and sharing a message of peace through art with a worldwide audience.

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